Iranian students stage a protest on Student Day
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In the early Nineties, 54-year-old Dariush Sarlak rebelled against the regime and was consequently twice locked up in Tehran’s infamous Evin Prison where he was tortured and threatened with execution before making a lucky escape and fleeing to the UK. Here, he shares his story — one with stark similarities to those emerging from Iran today — and his hopes for a better future.
Evin Prison, which holds an estimated one-quarter of the country’s political prisoners, has long been accused of committing serious human rights abuses with prisoners reporting the likes of sexual assaults and electric shocks.
The prison is maintained by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security and the IRGC, according to the US Treasury in 2018. Senior regime officials, however, “regularly downplay” the torture and abuse that takes place there.
But Evin — built before the 1979 revolution — is not the sole prison in Iran. As of 2014, there were 253 institutions across the country.
“It is beyond anyone’s imagination what political prisoners across Iran are going through. Evin is notorious, but it’s not only Evin,” Dariush said. “They all operate in the same way: by torturing, raping, and killing. I was tortured but not raped. But I have spoken to many, many men and women who have been.”
The situation has not changed since Dariush was held captive in the early Nineties. Instead, he said it has “worsened”.
Dariush, born in Aligudarz in the Lorestan province to a wealthy landowner family, described himself as a “rejector” and his outspoken, rebellious attitude landed him in Evin Prison — not once, but twice. On the first occasion, Dariush was incarcerated in Evin for 45 days, where he was interrogated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC].
He told Express.co.uk: “I was beaten and tortured. They forced me to try and confess to false accusations that I was connected to the intelligence service and attempting to topple the government. I was not a spy — I was young and revolutionary-minded.”
At just 26 years old, Dariush was then thrown into Evin again for two long months in 1994. But this time, the stakes were higher: he was sentenced to death.
He vividly remembers his room: a concrete, completely bare cell, devoid of daylight. Its number — 209 — remains etched in his mind. He was beaten and not allowed to sleep. “It was horrendous,” he said.
After being repeatedly kicked, Dariush was in a great deal of pain and developed a kidney infection. His tormentors allowed him to call his father on the basis that he would cooperate. He agreed.
“They allowed me to have a two-minute conversation. I said ‘Dad, listen, I have been hurt and I am in pain. I’m not being given medication; no medical care; nothing whatsoever. Do something’ and I put the phone down. That was it. They weren’t expecting that,” he said.
Luckily, his father had connections and bailed him out of Evin before rushing him to a hospital. His father then paid for him to be smuggled out of the country to safety. “I never looked back,” he said “I was hidden in a small village near the Turkish border and then I crossed with the smugglers to Turkey on foot.”
A quarter of a century may have passed, but Dariush’s story holds stark similarities to accounts emerging today, as protests continue sweeping the nation and security services respond with force.
According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency, more than 522 protesters have so far been killed by security forces in a wave of unrest sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody in September. For Dariush, Iran is facing a “genocide” at the hand of the state government, or the “monsters in Iran”, led by the “monstrous criminal” Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Those who manage to escape death at the protests often face a similarly dire outcome: they are thrown into prisons like Evin, from which horrific reports of torture have emerged. And, if they are forced to confess, they will be executed following “sham” trials. Last year, it was estimated that more than 500 people were executed in Iran and just this week, four men were hanged in connection to the uprising.
At the risk of being tortured or worse, Dariush has never returned to the country of his birth. The last time he saw his father was that September of 1994 when he was forced to flee. The only way he can stay in contact with his family is via telephone, but calls are tapped and the lines are frequently disconnected.
“They’re monitoring everyone, especially someone like me who has escaped a death sentence. This has not changed. My family has not been given passports so they cannot visit me. Every time they apply it’s disregarded — they don’t even say that they are rejecting the application,” he continued.
“Emotionally they are torturing them. They are parents who deserve to see their kids but they don’t let them. It’s not safe for me to travel to neighbouring countries — many have been kidnapped and sentenced to death.”
Arriving in the UK was difficult at the beginning, particularly financially, but Dariush managed to survive and now has a growing business. Although the fear that he is in danger and his experience of Evin have never left him, Dariush has managed to find a way to keep going.
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If he could be in Iran without facing persecution, he would join the uprising “without a shadow of a doubt”. But Dariush still finds a way to fight for his country.
On January 8, he and hundreds of others descended on London’s Trafalgar Square to show solidarity and commemorate the 115th day of Iran’s “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests. But the peaceful demonstrations in Iran pose far greater risks to those who march than in the UK. Yet Dariush said he does not fear for his family.
“For everything in life, we have to pay a price,” he continued. “In Britain, thousands have given their lives to have a democratic society for future generations. We are prepared to do that. The brave young Iranian men and women, who are mainly under 30, are doing so in Iran.
“I will keep going until we reach freedom. It is my duty and everybody’s duty for the freedom of their people and their country. We have and we are fighting for human dignity which was taken from us in 1979.”
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