Detained Lawyer of Iranian Instagram Star Tortured, Bit Off Tongue After Unidentified Injection
More Political Prisoners Could Die in Custody without Urgent International Action
October 20, 2021 – A prominent defense attorney in Iran bit off part of his tongue after being forcibly given an injection that brought on seizures while detained by the intelligence organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) has learned after viewing medical records.
Payam Derafshan—a former chairman of the Iranian Bar Association’s Lawyers’ Defense Committee whose numerous high-profile human rights cases include the Instagram star known as Sahar Tabar and the Iranian Canadian sociologist who died in state custody, Kavous Seyed-Emami—was tortured while detained by the IRGC for doing his job, according to his lawyer.
“This is a horrifying example of the way the Iranian judicial system tortures individuals accused of criticizing the state,” said Saeid Dehghan, an Iranian defense attorney and human rights expert, in an interview with CHRI.
“The Iranian government has been waging a war against human rights lawyers in the country for years, and if the security and judicial forces are not reigned in, lawyers will be joining the ranks of political prisoners who’ve perished in Iranian prisons,” Dehghan added.
CHRI has viewed Derafshan’s medical records indicating he required medical procedures after biting off his tongue due to seizures he experienced after being forcibly injected with an unknown substance while in the custody of the IRGC’s intelligence organization.
“International lawyers’ groups, such as the International Bar Association and other bar associations in Europe and the U.S., should be issuing statements in solidarity with their counterparts in Iran who are risking their lives to defend justice and the rule of law,” said CHRI Executive Director Hadi Ghaemi.
“Human rights lawyers are the last remaining lifeline in Iran for individuals targeted by the state for peaceful actions,” said Ghaemi. “If we don’t speak up for these lawyers now, no one will be left to speak up for the Iranian people.”
CHRI urges governments worldwide, as well as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and other UN experts such as the special rapporteur for human rights defenders and the special rapporteur on Iran to forcibly condemn the concerted and unlawful efforts of the Iranian government to prevent peaceful criticism of its policies and dissent through the persecution of these lawyers.
Office of Prominent Lawyer Raided, Held Incommunicado, Tortured in IRGC Custody
Human rights lawyers are subjected to severe forms of intimidation by state agents for taking on politically sensitive cases.
Derafshan was directly victimized by the IRGC’s intelligence organization in June 2021, when his Tehran office was raided, his computer and clients’ confidential case files confiscated, and he was blindfolded and transported to a secret location and held in an unairconditioned, windowless room in Iran’s intense summer heat.
A day later, Derafshan was transferred to the IRGC-controlled Ward 2-A of Tehran’s Evin Prison, where he, like all the detainees there, was denied access to lawyers and his family and isolated from the outside world while subjected to many hours of grueling interrogations.
Lawyer Represented Individuals Targeted by the State for Peaceful Actions
“He was questioned mostly about other cases such as the mysterious death of Kavous Seyed-Emami and accepting legal representation for [human rights lawyer] Nasrin Sotoudeh and others,” Dehghan told CHRI.
Those who are targeted by the state in Iran for criticizing state policies or engaging in peaceful activism or dissent are often charged with specious “national security” crimes based solely on manufactured reports created by the intelligence agencies that targeted them.
“The interrogators were insisting on finding connections between Derafshan and so-called spies and politically ‘problematic’ individuals,” Dehghan added. “For instance, they wanted to know how Derafshan became acquainted with Kavous Seyed-Emami and agreed to represent him. Or what law courses Derafshan attended abroad with help from Nasrin Sotoudeh, or whether they collaborated on cases or shared an office.”
Seyed-Emami, a Canadian citizen and managing director of the now-shuttered Tehran-based Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, died in Evin Prison in February 2018 while held for interrogations by the IRGC’s intelligence organization.
The Iranian government refused to allow his family to conduct an independent autopsy and harassed Seyed-Emami’s wife and sons for years until they were finally allowed to leave the country.
Another client Derafshan was interrogated about, Nasrin Sotoudeh, is known as Iran’s Nelson Mandela and is one of the country’s most renowned human rights lawyers. Despite international condemnation of her case, Sotoudeh is currently serving a 38-year sentence in the notoriously inhumane Garchak Prison, 12 years of which she must serve before she is eligible for release.
At the time of his own arrest, Derafshan was representing, jointly with Deghan, Fatemeh Kishvand, known as Sahar Tabar on her popular Persian-language Instagram page, which featured pictures of her in heavy makeup and costumes.
In December 2020, Derafshan had tried to get Kishvand, then 18, freed from prison after she was put on a ventilator due to her COVID-19 infection. After the story garnered international attention, Tabar was released on bail though no formal ruling was issued on her case, meaning she could be put back behind bars at any time.
Lawyer Bites Off Tongue After Mysterious Injection
Derafshan was himself then detained shortly thereafter, and after complaining about the sleep deprivation he was subjected to, was injected with an unknown substance while in IRGC custody. The following morning, he was hospitalized because he had bitten off part of his tongue during seizures.
Yet Iranian authorities refused to allow him to recover in the hospital or at his home following an extensive medical procedure on his tongue, despite being unable to use his now stitched-together tongue to eat or talk properly.
Instead, they transported Derafshan to a mental hospital where he was forcibly given electric shock treatments, and then transferred him to a public ward.
“After experiencing seizures again, Derafshan was not taken to a specialist hospital but instead transferred in ankle and handcuffs to Razi Hospital for the mentally ill, where he was subjected to electric shocks, seriously damaging his neurological system and causing him to lose consciousness,” said Dehghan.
He was subsequently sentenced in absentia to 2.5 years in prison by Judge Moghisseh in prison and banned from practicing law for two years, a sentence that was later upheld on appeal. Despite being seriously ill, he was not granted bail and was held until his sentence was finalized.
Derafshan has served a third of his prison term and is currently completing medical treatments related to his tongue and the physical and psychological torture he was subjected to while in state custody.
The state’s treatment of Derafshan is part of a decades-long campaign to intimidate or imprison independent defense lawyers to prevent them from taking on human rights cases, especially those involving activists or dissidents.
As of October 2021, at least five defense lawyers have confirmed prison sentences based on false charges. Of these, Mohammad Najafi and Soheila Hejab are still in prison. Nasrin Sotoudeh is temporarily out of prison on sick leave. Giti Pourfazel and Payam Derafshan are free on parole.
At least two other lawyers, Farzaneh Zilabi and Mohammad Hadi Erfanian-Kaseb, have been tried and sentenced to prison on sham charges, but are out of prison as their sentences have not yet been finalized on appeal.
Three other human rights lawyers, Arash Keykhosravi, Mostafa Nili, and Mohammad Reza Faghihi, are awaiting trial on trumped-up charges because they tried to sue the government for its failed COVID-19 response. Of the three, only Mohammad Reza Faghihi is out of jail on bail, and the other two are still in detention.