Sugar Mill Workers Call for International Action to Free Detained Colleagues Esmail Bakhshi and Sepideh Qoliyan
Esmail Bakhshi and Sepideh Qoliyan Pressured to Retract Torture Allegations
A union representing workers of the Haft Tappeh sugar mill in the Iranian city of Shush, Khuzestan Province, has called on individuals and international organizations to demand the release of union representative Esmail Bakhshi and freelance reporter Sepideh Qoliyan from the Intelligence Ministry’s detention center in Ahvaz.
“We are aware that in the past few days, and at the time of their arrest, they were asked to lie and confess against their will in front of a camera that torture was never carried out and that the whole story was dictated to them by so-called adversaries and anti-revolutionary media outlets,” said the union in a post on its Telegram app channel on February 11, 2019.
“We are aware that they are under intense pressure to express remorse and write statements against themselves,” it added.
In its statement, the union called on “all labor activists, human rights advocates and journalists to translate this [statement] and file complaints with relevant organizations and ask them to do whatever is necessary.”
“We want a case opened against the Iranian government for its violation of the rights of these two individuals and strongly urge an end to the pressures on Bakhshi and Qoliyan (also spelled Gholian) to make forced confessions and sign pledges against their will,” the union added.
Bakhshi and Qoliyan, both peaceful advocates of workers’ rights in Iran, were initially arrested on November 18, 2018, and detained for roughly a month in an Intelligence Ministry-run detention center in Ahvaz.
After they were released on bail, they both stated that they had been tortured and posted statements online that were later confirmed by eyewitnesses.
On January 20, two weeks after the publication of their social media statements, Bakhshi and Qoliyan were rearrested by agents of the Intelligence Ministry.
Ten days after Bakhshi stated that he’d been repeatedly beaten during his 25 days in detention and left in his cell in the Intelligence Ministry’s detention center in the city of Ahvaz without medical care, the judiciary launched a “two-day” sham investigation that excluded eyewitnesses and exonerated the Intelligence Ministry.
Bakhshi was re-arrested on January 20 along with Qoliyan. Both individuals are at grave risk of suffering further harm while government officials remain focused on preventing statements like theirs from becoming public again via social media.
Throughout the past two years, workers of the Haft Tappeh sugar mill have launched several strikes demanding months of unpaid wages.
Labor activism in Iran is treated as a national security offense, strikers are often fired and risk arrest, and labor leaders are prosecuted under catchall national security charges and sentenced to long prison terms.
“We want them [Bakhshi and Qoliyan] to be freed unconditionally and the cases against them, as well as against Ali Nejati, Mohammad Khoneyfar and [Sepideh’s brother] Mehdi Qoliyan, to be closed,” the union said in its statement.
Hossein Raeesi, a formerly Iran-based lawyer now living in Canada, told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) that activists could petition the United Nations and the International Labor Organization on behalf of the detainees.
“There are human rights NGOs that have an advisory role in the UN,” he said. “They have more experience and are in a better position to file a petition and follow it up.”
“Also the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran [Javaid Rehman] can also take necessary steps,” he said.
On January 22, CHRI called on the Iranian authorities to release Bakhshi and Qoliyan, ensure their protection, and re-open an independent and impartial investigation into their alleged torture.
CHRI has also called on all relevant UN human rights bodies as well as EU countries with which Iran maintains relations to take coordinated action to call for the activists’ immediate release and demand a full and impartial investigation into their alleged torture.