Marina Nemat, Iranian author and former prisoner of conscience, addresses the 5th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.
Marina Nemat: Hello, good morning. Thank you so, so much for your time and for having me here with you today, and for lending me an ear.
I was born in 1965 in Tehran, Iran – that was during the time of the Shah and before the Islamic Revolution. When I was growing up, yes, we didn’t have any political freedoms, but for a young girl, a Christian girl, from a Christian family, living in Tehran, to be honest with you, political freedoms didn’t matter that much to me; we had personal freedoms. I went to a wonderful school for girls. At the time, Iran had secular laws. Women could become whatever they wanted in Iran; a woman could become a judge. Awoman, according to the law, could even become the Prime Minister. We owned a cottage by the Caspian Sea. I spent my summers dancing to the Bee Gees and wearing bikinis on the beach, boys and girls together. I learned my ABC’s in kindergarten next to a Persian, and I had very high hopes.And then things changed with the revolution in 1979.
Ayatollah Khomeini, who had become the leader of this revolution, promised the people of Iran freedom and democracy. So the left and the right, everybody followed, they all supported Khomeini and his ideas and the revolution succeeded. 98% of the people of Iran voted yes to an Islamic Republic, and the Islamic Republic of Iran was born. But, it certainly was not what it had promised to be. Soon after the Revolution, things took a turn for the worse. Not only didn’t we gain any political freedoms, but the personal freedoms that we had had during the time of the Shah – the old dancing became illegal, singing became illegal, holding your boyfriend’s hand in public became illegal. So all the things we had enjoyed, now we had lost.
Now, I’m sure you have heard about the American hostages in Iran, taken hostage shortly after the success of the revolution, but did you know that as early as 1981, there were thousands of teenage political prisoners in Iranian prisons. The world didn’t want to hear about it, or didn’t hear about it, whatever happened, as early as 1981. My generation, including me, we were on the streets of Tehran demonstrating against the Islamic Revolution, against the Islamic Republic, because it did not deliver the freedoms that it had promised. And every single one of these demonstrations, as early as 1980, was attacked by the newly formed revolutionary guard. At the beginning they attacked us with baseball bats, but then they graduated to tear gas and then live bullets. There were 14, 15, 16 year olds demonstrating; thousands of us on the streets of Tehran.
Then, the wave of mass arrests began in 1981; the mass arrest of young people. I was arrested on January 15, 1982 and taken to Evin prison. I was 16 years old. I was blindfolded upon arrival. Right now, as I’m speaking, Evin prison is completely operational and it has about seven thousand prisoners. I was taken in upon arrival, I was blindfolded, I was taken for interrogation, I was asked questions and I answered every question truthfully. I was 16 years old and I really had nothing to hide. I had attended protest rallies, so what? All of my friends attended protest rallies. I had spoken against the government, so what? All of my friends had spoken against the government. From my humble perspective, I wasn’t doing anything wrong.
They didn’t like the answers that I gave them. They took me into a small room in Evin prison [and] they took off my blindfold. I was in that room with two men, Ali and Hamid. They handcuffed me and when they handcuffed me, they realised that my hands were going to slide out of the cuffs, so they put both of my wrists together and they put both hands into one cuff. And as it clicked, I heard my right wrist crack. And the torture had not even begun yet. At that point, if the devil appeared that asked me to sell him my soul, I would have done it, because I was 16 and I just wanted to go home and sleep in my own bed. I wanted my mom.
They tied me to a bare wooden bed, I was lying down on my stomach and they lashed the soles of my feet with a length of cable – the favorite method of torture in the Middle East. With every strike of the lash, your whole nervous system explodes, then is magically put back together and you’re wide awake for the next strike. They beat you and beat you. When they untied me, I looked at my feet – they look[ed] like party balloons with toes on them. Then they made me walk and they started all over again. They make you walk and then start it all over again. Do you know why they stagger it? Because, if they continue beating, your skin would burst and you will die from bleeding and infection. They are not trying to kill you, there are more economical ways to kill people; they would execute if they want to kill you. They’re trying to prolong your suffering. Why? What is the point of torture? It is not to get information, I would have confessed, I was, Jesus Christ, under torture. I signed every single paper they gave me, I didn’t even read it. Do you honestly think that when you are in so much pain you’re going to read what they give you? I put my name on every document they gave me. The point of torture is not to get information, the point of torture is to break the human soul. And thousands, thousands of prisoners were, and are, being tortured in Evin prison right now. I was given a death sentence because I didn’t cooperate, because I was considered ‘an enemy of God’.
A courtroom in Evin prison was, and is, a Sharia judge sitting behind the desk passing verdicts every three minutes. There is no lawyer, there is no jury; there is none of that. You are less than a slave in Evin prison, you have no rights. And then they sent me to the cell block.
In every cell block in Evin prison, in the women’s cell block, during the time of the Shah – yes we had political prisoners during the time of the Shah –  there were five or six prisoners in each one of these cells. But then during my time, there were 50, 60 or 70. There was no room to move. At night we slept like sardines, we spent all of our days in line to go to the bathroom. And as you’re standing to go to the bathroom, names are being announced over the loudspeaker “so and so come to the office”, and the people who are called are being taken for torture and interrogation. And if your name is called, you’d better go, because if you don’t, they will come and shoot you right there.
There was another form of torture in Evin prison. Sometimes girls were called at midnight and they would return to the cell block at 5am. If you knew the girl, you would go to her and you would say “where were you last night”? She didn’t show any signs of torture and that was weird. And she would say “oh”, she would give you some lame excuse, “oh, they took me for interrogation and nothing happened”. Yeah, right.
I was called for interrogation about six months after my arrest. My interrogator, Ali, was there. He looked me straight in the eye and he said “listen and listen carefully. You had the death sentence, I reduced it to life in prison. You’re going to be here forever and the world doesn’t give a damn”. And it was true, the world did not give a damn. “And if you become my wife, your life will get easier. Not that you would be released, but your life will get easier. And if you don’t, I will arrest your parents.”
If he arrested my parents, I wouldn’t have a home to go back to; I said fine. He forced me to convert to Islam, he even changed my name. One day I looked around me, I had lost my freedom, my family, my religion and my dignity. How much more can you take away from a human being? I was being raped over and over under the name of marriage. I was 17 years old in a solitary confinement cell in Evin prison. And this is not something you go and talk about with your cellmate over a bowl of soup. What, I slept with my interrogator last night? Are you kidding me? This became my secret, a secret that I protected with my life. The man that did this to me, he himself had been a political prisoner in Evin prison during the time of the Shah. Oh yes.
Victimhood is not a perpetual state. A victim can become a torturer, and a torturer can become a victim. The tables turned for him one day, and he decided to take revenge. Justice, whatever you want to call it, and he did it. And the tables will turn for me as well. One day, somebody will put a length of cable in my hand and say “go for it, go get your justice.” But, there’s one thing I have learned. They can take away everything from you, but there’s one thing they cannot take away, and that is the person who you really are. And the person you really are has nothing to do with your name or religion etc, etc. It has to do with that length of cable. I will put that length of cable down; enough is enough. Justice and revenge are two very different concepts.
The situation in Iran, the brutality practised in Iranian prisons is exactly the same, if not worse. Many people would argue that it is worse today than it was in the 80s when I was in prison for two years, two months and 12 days. Many would argue it is worse right now. And you know what, they are probably right. People ask me, have things gotten any better in Iran. No, they haven’t gotten any better. Iran is still governed by Sharia law.
Sharia law, just to let you know, under Sharia law, just one example I’m gonna give you, the testimony of a woman is worth half of a man. Just think about it logically for a moment. Can a society in which the testimony of half of the population is worth less than the other half ever have anything that could even resemble justice and democracy? No, it cannot.
So yes, in 2009, we have had mass protests in Iran since 1980, but the brutality of that regime is so extreme that it doesn’t allow the people to budge. You budge and there’s a gun pointed to your head, you budge, and your daughter is going to be raped in front of you. Now, what can the international community do? That is the question.
I have agonised, and my friends and cellmates the same, we have agonised every single time that the likes of Mr. Ahmadinejad – and there are many of them – are given the microphone on international stages here and there in various countries around the world. Not because we don’t want them to speak. Oh no, I believe in freedom of speech, I believe that my enemy has the right to speak as much as I do But the next time any Iranian official is given the microphone on an international stage or on the CNN etc., etc., I would really like to see a torture victim, like me from Iran, given the microphone for the same amount of time and on the same stage; so that we are given the opportunity, this is the opportunity I have never had.
I have written two books about what happened to me in Iran. I give five talks a week on what happened to me in Iran. But I have never had the opportunity to look at one of these men straight in the eye and ask them a question that I need to ask: Why did you torture me? Why did you beat me to a pulp at the age of 16? Why? Why do you keep on doing it? I have never been given that opportunity. So I’m asking the international community to give us this possibility to look our torturers straight in the eye and ask this important question, and if asking this question is going to cost me my life, so be it. At least I will die happy.
I carry the memories of every single girl who stood in bathroom lines in Evin prison with me; many of them are buried in mass graves. They are not here to speak for themselves. I am the lucky, or the unlucky one. And please, get your voices heard. The political prisoners in Iranian prisons right now, they would like to hear from you.
I don’t believe in bombing Iran. I don’t believe bombing has ever fixed any problems in the long run. But please get your voices heard. Please support Iranian political prisoners. Go online – there are so many websites – write articles. If you’re a journalist, pay attention to this situation.
The main problem in Iran is not the nuclear situation. It is an issue but it is not the main issue. The main issue with Iran is absolute disregard for human rights that has taken thousands of lives and has devastated probably hundreds of thousands more in the past 33 years.
Silence, please let’s not forget, silence, your silence, is a weapon of mass destruction.