Interrogation in the “Sharia Room” and Telephone Trials: A Report from Qarchak Prison
by Sara Yavari and Farzad Seifikaran — 21February2023
Two inside sources have recently informed Zamaneh of several accounts of arrested women in Qarchak prison being taken to what has been called the “sharia room” for the purpose of interrogation. This room is conventionally used for conjugal visits for married prisoners to meet and engage in sexual acts with their legal spouses. A handmade map provided to us by one of the prisoners exposes all parts of Qarchak prison which includes the interrogation rooms and spaces used to establish virtual courts.
Since the start of the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement in Iran, many women have been arrested and held captive in a number of prisons across the country. One of these prisons is Qarchak, also referred to as the Shahr-e Rey penitentiary, located in Varamin in southeast Tehran. Inside sources which include prisoners recently freed from this prison, have told us that at Qarchak, trials are being carried out online or via telephone. These telephone and online court trials take no longer than 2 minutes and take place without the presence of any lawyers. Moreover, the detained protesters are not allowed to defend themselves. In the same prison, detained women are being interrogated in “sharia rooms” where a number of women have reportedly been asked to engage in sexual acts by their interrogators.
Changing the “Prison’s Club” into the Arrested Women’s Unit
An inside source who is familiar with Qarchak in Varamin and informed about the unfolding events inside the prison, describes what they witnessed to Zamaneh:
“Since the beginning of the protests and the subsequent arrests, the community of arrested women, in particular, grew fast. A number of arrested women, who were predominantly older than 30, were taken to the prison’s quarantine section and those under 30 were taken to Unit 8. During the peak of the regime’s arresting of protestors, they changed the name of an empty space that was referred to as “the club” to “the supervisory.” They placed many beds and took all the new prisoners there. The situation there was really bad. When Unit 8 became less crowded these prisoners were relocated from the supervisory to this unit. Recently, they had also relocated all prisoners from the quarantine space to Unit 8.”
Another source confirms the statement above, adding that sometimes because of the vast amount of prisoners and the lack of space, 30-year-olds were also relocated to Unit 8. She says:
“We were there when they started to put beds in the Quran room and “the club”. They did not provide heating in these spaces and constantly took away our blankets. We went on a hunger strike for 3 days and demanded the prison’s officials to not accept any new prisoners. At first, they accepted this demand but later, they wanted to bring prisoners from the club and force them to sleep on the ground in a small hallway. One day, the prison warden came and walked from the beginning to the end of this hallway and told us to sleep there. Chaos broke loose in the unit as soon as he left.”
The first source further explains that among the women prisoners, there were women from all classes and professions ranging from general laborers, students and teachers to journalists and doctors, “The number of women who were general laborers was high. The names of some of them spread in the media. But others were told that, if they stay silent, the court might change its mind about their verdict. They were threatened by their interrogators and worried for their families, so they decided to not let their names spread in the media.”
2-minute telephone and virtual trials, without the presence of a lawyer
Online courts were established in Iran at the start of COVID-19 during which limitations were set in place for presence in public and crowded spaces. These online courts resemble video conferences. Among other prisoners, political prisoners too have been put on trial in these online courts. The characteristics of these online courts does not however differ from actual courts as in both cases, the basic rights of the prisoners are being violated: prisoners neither have access to a lawyer nor are they given the chance to defend themselves in front of the court.
In regard to online courts being established at Qarchak prison, the source who spoke to Zamaneh explains, “Detained women are mostly put on trial during court sessions that take no longer than a couple of minutes. Sometimes, they take as short as 2 minutes. The verdicts they receive in these courts are often either 1 or 2 years of prison and a number of whips.”
This source explains that women who were arrested in cities on the outskirts of Tehran — such as Shahriar and Pardis — are denied admission to bail, in the process of their interrogation, as well as in court. This source explains the execution of online courts as such:
“Some of them are still in detention. In Shahriar there is no Revolutionary Court and the women are not deployed to the Revolutionary Courts of other cities either. The few women who did have their trials attended them through either video conference or telephone call. Given the low quality of the internet connection in Iran, online courts often transformed into telephone hearings, which prevented the judge and the convict from seeing each other. The duration of these telephone hearings was a maximum of 2 minutes, 2 minutes full of threats. The judge would, for example, say to the convict ‘I will give you a verdict that will make you miserable.’ In these trials, 9 of the detained women were given the verdict of two years of discretionary imprisonment. Their crimes were stated as gathering and colluding with the objective of threatening the country’s safety, advertising against the regime, encouraging corruption, prostitution, and disrupting the public order.”
According to this source, the verdicts of some of detained women were even issued without a court trial. This source explains, “Detained women were brought to rooms in which they were put on trial in an online court resembling a video conference. But because of poor internet connection, they mostly ended up being prosecuted through telephone.”
What becomes apparent through the words of this source is that the rights of political prisoners and recently arrested protesters are not only being violated inside the regime’s Revolutionary courts, but also through the poor internet connection, surveillance and filtering as added layers of oppression. The surveillance of the internet contributes to the violation of the prisoners’ legal rights as they are faced with unjust and illegal trials as a result.
Another source revealed to Zamaneh that the women who were arrested in Tehran or based in the capital are all taken to actual courts, whereas detained women from smaller cities such as Shahriar and Pardis located on the outskirts of Tehran are put on trial virtually or telephonically. This source emphasizes that for the majority of women, the verdict of whippings has been issued.
Detained women uninformed of their 2-minute trials
One of the sources to whom we spoke points to the fact that many of the detained women are not informed about the date of their virtual trials in advance. In the early morning hours of their trial date, the prison guards simply read the names of the detained women and immediately take them to the room designated for the online court trials, however sometimes, as the source reveals, “They would read the names of the women who were going to be put on trial the night before their virtual trial.”
In the words of this source, one of Qarchak prison’s bitter realities is the imprisoned women’s own request to be put on trial, so that they can at least become aware of their verdict, and thus their future. Our source further explains that in some cases, the prisoner was brought to court after only one interrogation per month.
Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court as an independent state
The source to whom we spoke also explained that some women were put on trial at the Revolutionary court where they were confronted with judge Abolqasem Salavati. Judge Salavati’s verdicts are known to be more brutal compared to those of other judges.
According to our sources, judge Salavati would not allow for the lawyers of the detained protesters to be present during their trials:
“After the convict was asked to state their rudimentary identification information, the convict was not allowed to further defend themselves, neither orally nor in writing. Judge Salavati is the judge of Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court and governs his territory as if the court were an independent state. He completely ignores the Sana system and refuses to use it to send official notices to those who are not in prison. Instead, he informs them about the time of their trial and the day of their verdict via the telephone.”
The sharia room: the place for detained women’s interrogation
Two sources from Qarchak prison in Varamin have informed Zamaneh about the usage of “the room for legitimate meetings,” (which can be translated as “the room for conjugal visits”) for the interrogation of incarcerated women.
One of Zamaneh’s sources describes this room, known as the “sharia room” as such:
“In Qarchak prison, there are rooms that are usually used for conjugal visits between women prisoners and their husbands. These rooms are referred to as “sharia rooms.” Interrogators have taken women there. In each of these rooms, there is one two-person bed. The guards sit the women in front of these beds to interrogate them. In some cases, the interrogators have requested the women to perform sexual acts and to have sexual relations with them inside and outside the prison. The interrogator would tell them, if you have sexual relations with me, I will help you get out of prison. But I will only help you if you are willing to have sexual relations with me inside the prison.”
The second source to whom we spoke, stated she was not informed about the interrogators’ offers for sexual relations and says she has not received such an offer. She however explains that, “the women were brought into the sharia room with their eyes covered. But once they entered the room, they were specifically asked to remove their eye covers so that they would see the bed and get scared.”
In the words of Zamaneh’s sources, the women of Unit 8 protested against the interrogation of women in the sharia room. Qarchak prison’s warden finally prohibited the interrogation of women in the sharia room, to prevent the spread of this “shameful” news.
Our source pointed to other cases of sexual assault experienced these detained women, explaining:
“On the streets, officers would unnecessarily touch the breasts and other body parts of protesting women whilst arresting them. In one case, a female officer in a police van touched the intimate body parts of a woman she was arresting. The officer had touched her so brutally that it had left a mark. She requested to be taken to the medical jurisprudence but they did not pay any attention to her request, after which the mark on her body slowly disappeared.”
The second source to whom we spoke shared with us a hand-drawn map of Qarchak prison, exposing the locations of the units and rooms in which the described interrogations and online trials are taking place.
The second source to whom Zamaneh spoke describes the spaces in which interrogations took place as follows:
“In the part of the prison where all the offices are located, in front of the door of the prison hall, there exists a building in which most of the interrogations take place. There was one room with many systems. There was one big hallway that functioned as an prison hall. The quarantine space is in front of the unit, and after that, follow 10 other units. The door of this hallway opened to the garden. The door that leads to the part of the prison where all offices are located is a bit further to the right. The aid room and other similar spaces are also located there. The health inspectors’ headquarters are located in front of the prison hall door. Some of the interrogations would take place on the second floor of the health inspectors’ headquarters. The people who had been taken to the sharia rooms were blindfolded and had walked a long way. They were not aware of where exactly they had been taken to.”