Iran holding protesters at secret prisons, says lawyer who fled

Detention areas also known as 'black sites' lack toilets, places to eat and medical care, Marzieh Mohebi says

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Anti-government protesters arrested in Iran's city of Mashhad are being held at secret prisons that lack proper amenities, a lawyer who fled the country with her family over fears for their safety has said.

Thousands of Iranians are believed to have been arrested for taking part in the nationwide protests that broke out in mid September and show no signs of abating despite a violent crackdown that has claimed nearly 400 lives, according to human rights groups.

Lawyer Marzieh Mohebi said she came to know of at least one such "black site" for detainees in Mashhad in the weeks before she fled the city.

"I am aware of new places designated for prisoners in Mashhad which do not meet the criteria for prison. They don't have toilets, places for eating, or a medical facility for treating wounds," Ms Mohebi told The National.

The families of some detainees have no idea where their children are, she said.

"The families of those prisoners are being kept in the dark by the Islamic Revolutionary Court and Ministry of Justice. They are in a very bad situation."

Ms Mohebi, who has been practising law for more than two decades, was lauded by state media in 2017 for the pro bono legal assistance provided by the Soura Women Lawyers Association that she founded. She declined to say what circumstances prompted her to flee Iran, except that she feared for her family's safety.

Iran's judiciary said two weeks ago that it had issued arrest warrants for 1,000 people in relation to the protests, which were sparked by the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a young woman arrested by the morality police in Tehran on charges of breaching the country's strict dress code.

Ms Mohebi said she had been approached for help by people who had been summoned by the Ministry of Intelligence during the protests.

"They fear going [to the ministry] because they would be arrested. They are also afraid that they can't have a normal life," she said.

She said the ministry was using methods that are tantamount to "emotional abuse".

"When families come to me they say their children were under a lot of pressure and physical pain when they made confessions," she said, referring to detained protesters.

Ms Mohebi said she had seen signs of physical abuse among the detainees. Security forces "hit them mostly in universities or police stations", she said.

No will to live

Ms Mohebi said that in her experience, many prisoners are never the same after their release.

"It is common for prisoners who are released to be very depressed and to have an overwhelming sense of impending doom," she said.

Ms Mohebi cited the example of a public figure who she knew personally but did not wish to identify.

"When they were released from prison, they did not speak to anyone. They have no contact with the outside world and are not active on social media platforms. They lost a significant amount of weight," she said.

"I think a lot of freed prisoners are like this — the will to live is taken away from them."

Updated: June 13, 2023, 8:15 AM