‘Chubby girls Don’t End up Political Prisoners’
Interview with Ana Diamond and Richard Ratcliffe
It was the summer of 2016 when they took Ana Diamond for execution. She was 20 years old and being held in solitary confinement in Iran’s notorious Evin prison on espionage, blasphemy and corruption on earth charges.
It was around 4 a.m. when they took Ana out of her cell and hurled her blindfolded into a van tying up her wrists and ankles. Ana was praying hard. They made her kneel. The female warden who she had begged to stay and with whom she had formed a bond said: “From here you are with God,” and left.
Alone with a male guard who had often interrogated her during her imprisonment Ana heard him snigger as she knelt down. “What, you think you are the Virgin Mary now, praying on your knees?”
“I felt detached from my body as I waited to be executed. After 15 minutes as I braced myself to be killed, I suddenly heard the guard say: “I don’t think I got time for this today and I heard him walking away.”
It had been a mock execution to break her down psychologically, the effects of which she still suffers from.
British citizen Ana had arrived at Tehran’s airport from London 15 months earlier to visit her grandparents, and was stopped at customs and interrogated by Iran’s revolutionary guards and her passport confiscated.
“At the airport as soon as I said that I was coming from the UK, the guard’s face darkened and he took my passport and told me to wait in a room. My Farsi was also broken and I kept speaking it with English words which aggravated the IRGC officers as they questioned me for hours in Farsi.
“A male revolutionary guard checked my belongings and after an hour took me to meet my mum as she was waiting to pick me up at the airport, telling her how disappointing it was that I had done something like this. Both me and my mum were bewildered at what was going on, but the guards wouldn’t tell us, only that there would be an investigation going on.”
The 19-year-old King’s College student was detained in Tehran under a travel ban so started interning with the UN in Tehran as she waited her fate.
A film and theology student at King’s College in London, Ana who is from a Christian-Muslim family had left Iran at the age of four with her father to immigrate to Finland when her parents divorced. Ana’s father was a scholarly researcher and a cleric, and her grandfather also a prominent cleric in Iran.
In London, Ana had worked as an intern for the Conservative Party and been to Israel for pilgrimage. During the 18 months while she was awaiting her fate in Iran, Ana had to attend several ‘interrogation’ interviews in an office in Tehran where she was asked about both.
“My father and I would go to see every official we could to find out why my passport had been taken away and with our mandatory interrogation visits to these offices we were met with aggressive lines of questioning about my internship with the Conservative party and our activities in the UK.”
While Ana enjoyed Persian culture in Tehran for those 18 months, seeing its mountains and forests and going to family parties, she was always followed. At the interrogation offices, the officers always knew where she had gone and with whom, where she had had coffee and which relative she had visited.
One day, 18 months later as Ana was walking in the street, a van containing a gang of revolutionary guards blocked her way and ordered her to get in.
“As soon as I asked why, three female guards jumped out of the van and dragged me inside, blindfolded me, pushed my head down between my knees. I kept asking them to call my dad and let him know, at which point they said: ‘don’t worry we got him too’, and that’s when my whole world fell apart.”
Taken to a court, Ana was asked if she was a spy, which she denied and was asked to write it down.
“Naturally I wrote it in English, as I can’t write in Farsi to which the guard totally lost it with me screaming: where do you think you are? This is not the UK. This is not the Queen’s government.
“I could hear my father in the upstairs court, screaming and shouting, protesting his innocence, but I was just 19 and timid in my terrorised state.”
Ana was immediately taken to solitary confinement at Evin prison for further investigation. Even after she was charged with being a spy, no evidence was produced pertaining to this. The charges of blasphemy and corruption on earth came a month later as she was in prison. The officials presented no evidence of this neither during her subsequent time in court nor whilst she was being interrogated in Evin.
Her parents who travelled separately to Ana to Tehran in 2014 were also arrested and imprisoned, charged with espionage. Again, with no evidence.
“It was the freezing month of January and in this tiny room with dead bugs I was asked to take all my clothes off and shower whilst the female guard inspected my hair and teeth. They gave me male prison clothes because the female ones didn’t fit me. One of the guards gave me underwear and it was so tight. When I asked for bigger sizes, she said: we don’t have big-sized underwear because chubby girls aren’t normally the trouble makers and don’t end up as political prisoners; it is always the skinny ones.”
The white glare of fluorescent light tubes were on 24/7 and any prisoner with an eye or neurological condition who asked for the lights to be dimmed or turned off had bright green stadium lights brought into her cell instead in order to aggravate her condition. It was psychological torture.
Other prisoners held in Iran’s prisons have died as a result of their long-term health condition being worsened with no healthcare. Environmentalist Kavous Seyed Emami who was jailed for running the Persian Wildlife Heritage foundation died in Evin prison in 2018 as a result of not being given his heart condition medication.
Other cells held journalists and human right activists, teachers and artists and those of the Baha’i faith-Iran’s largest non-Muslim minority whose faith even though originally arose from a movement within Islam, the Iranian regime regards as a traitorous sect. In fact, due to Evin’s long-term history of detaining intellectuals since the Shah’s rule it has been nicknamed Evin University.
“I would hear screams from other cells from my cell at night and I was told that the ground outside my window was an execution ground. Even now if I hear any loud sounds I feel traumatised,” Ana, now 24, starts to cry as we sit together in a North London café, water cups untouched. My overwhelming instinct is a maternal one towards her, not wanting her to go into too much detail about her torture in a hell-hole prison as she is suffering from PTSD and heart arrhythmia as a result of her ordeal in Evin, which also included a mock execution and a forced virginity test. Then there is me, the journalist who is thirsty for detail. But Ana wants to pour out her heart, even though her talking is interjected with weeping, her giant doe eyes terrified as she regurgitates her experiences.
“I was told by a fellow prisoner that if you are a virgin they are not supposed to execute you, so they will rape you before your execution. So many women had virginity tests and if found to be a virgin, were raped before their execution so they would not go to heaven.”
In the Islamic Republic of Iran it is illegal to execute a young woman, regardless of her crime, if she is a virgin, so just before her execution, the female prisoner is forcibly married in a temporary marriage ceremony to the male guard so he can ‘legally’ rape her, so she is not a virgin when she dies.
After four months of solitary confinement, Ana was transferred to a public ward for one month where she met many women who had been there since the 1990s: journalists, human rights activists and lawyers, as well as hearing about women like 26 year old Reyhaneh Jabbari who was executed in 2014 for having killed her rapist in self-defence.
The other women told her about the notorious prison Gharchak- a hell-hole where all the women have complete mental breakdowns, rape each other, self-harm and develop serious psychological conditions. Ex-Gharchak prisoners have talked of how the water hose in the toilet would be bloody from women raping each other with it.
“I heard that a mortuary slab container was used as solitary confinement for some women. They would lie in that tiny space for days, like a coffin.
“A friend of mine, artist Atena Farghadani (who drew government officials as goats and monkey was arrested in 2014, tortured in prison and subjected to a virginity test and charged with adultery for shaking her lawyer’s hand) had a heart attack at the age of 28.
“They tried to get me to start working as a double agent, and to make a TV confession. During my daily interrogations which could last up to 10 hours, they had good cop/bad cop tactics. One who would be very aggressive, screaming in my ear that I have let down the whole population of Iran by being a spy, throwing chairs at my head, and one with a kinder voice.
“They would say: we know you spoke with David Cameron. We know you are working with MI6, and Boris Johnson, who was then Mayor of London.”
One day when Ana was taken out to a yard she had a breakdown and while crying she heard her father calling her name from a cell below her. For the next few months this was their way of communication. When she was taken out for air, she would stomp her feet loudly on the ground and he would whistle back.
“I was sure that they were going to carry out the death penalty on me, especially just after they sent me back to solitary. It was a different solitary cell, this time with no Qur’an which signalled that it was time for death. For three days I saw no one. One day an elderly lady warden who had worked in Evin for over three decades and witnessed many executions opened the door and told me: Just tell your truth, don’t say anything you will regret.”
And so, came Ana’s mock execution.
“The other women prisoners used to call me little chick, because I was the youngest one there. One of them used to bang her toothbrush on the sink from her cell so I could hear her and I’d respond by banging my toothbrush back as a signal of communication.
“I also started to actually feel sorry for the guards working there when I found out they were getting paid less than minimum wage as they used to talk amongst themselves how they did not have enough money to buy food for their families. These were women, some quite educated ones with a PhD who had no choice but to do this job.”
The bail was set at 100,000 UK sterling and Ana’s family and relatives put their properties up for sale to raise the funds but it took the courts about three months to accept the bail.
“During the three months they tried really hard to break me down, to get a TV confession, to make me agree to be a double agent.”
Released in 2016 but put under house arrest, Ana had been fortunate to have a well-known and influential religious figure as a grandfather and was released. She returned to the UK in July 2018 as did her parents.
Returning home to London, Ana was left with not only a heart condition-heart arrhythmia-but psychological trauma. She was taken to A&E multiple times with severe chest pains and eventually had two heart two operations in February and March 2019 and was an inpatient at a London hospital from January to April 2019.
“Because I had been taken to A&E an unusual amount of times, the doctors started to think that I needed trauma therapy to help with my heart arrhythmia as well. But counselling did not help, nor did meditation.”
But sadly psychological help and support for a person who has been the victim of torture as a political prisoner is very limited in the UK and Ana had to be ‘qualified’ as a victim of torture by a doctor to get therapeutic care and help from a UK charity.
It took almost one year after her return from Iran for an NHS therapist to confirm that she was suffering from PTSD and Ana was able to be referred to the British charity Freedom from Torture which provides therapeutic care for survivors of torture in the UK.
Established in 1985 as a branch of Amnesty International by human rights activist Helen Bamber, over 57,000 victims of torture have been referred to the organisation and Freedom from Torture has provided medical and psychological rehabilitation therapies, including psychotherapy, physiotherapy as practical advice and support.
It runs entirely on charitable donations.
However the individual does need to be ‘qualified’ for help and then referred by a doctor who must provide medical evidence that the person has developed physical and psychological conditions as a result of torture.
Aalia Khan, media manager of Freedom from Torture says: “Most of our referrals come through a survivor’s GP or social worker, or their immigration solicitor. If they need a medico-legal report to support an asylum claim they are referred to our medico-legal report service via their legal representative. But anyone can refer a torture survivor for therapy, including the survivor themselves.
“We treat hundreds of vulnerable men, women and young people a year who are fleeing torture and persecution from around the world. We have centres across the country, in Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow as well as London. Many of our clients are from Sri Lanka, Congo, Turkey and Iran.
But organisations like FFT are very rare and FFT is the only one in the UK that offers specific physical and psychological support for victims of torture. And Aalia agrees that there are not enough support organisations to help victims of torture.
“There is definitely a lot of pressure on our services. We are unique in the sense that we offer a whole range of support from clinical therapy to welfare and legal support. We produce Medico-Legal reports to aid asylum cases, as well as run art and music therapies. Freedom from Torture also hosts a national torture survivor network called Survivors Speak OUT, where former clients lobby for improved policy-making on a range of issues including asylum decision-making and working with vulnerable people.”
Like Nazanin Zagheri-Ratcliffe who has been held in Evin prison in Iran since April 2016 on espionage charges, many dual national citizens are also held in Iran for similar faux charges which many believe to be a strategy by the Iranian regime to use them as human pawns and bargaining chips in a bigger political and financial game- the historically-hostile relations between the west and Islamic republic of Iran. Iranian American journalist Jason Rezaian who was detained on espionage charges, was released from an Iranian prison in 2016 when the USA delivered $400 million in frozen accounts to Iran.
Nazanin Zagheri-Ratcliffe’s husband Richard has campaigned tirelessly for her release since 2016, even going on a 15-day hunger strike outside the Iranian embassy as protest at her treatment by the Iranian regime.
“This is purely government to government fighting, using ordinary people to do it. The British government have been very reluctant to criticise the Iranian government because they have been busy trying to sign oil deals,” says Mr Ratcliffe.
“The British government are complicit in keeping Nazanin in prison; it is actually worse than them being ineffective. Nazanin is a chess piece and both governments are complicit in using her a human bargaining chip.”
The bargaining chip? The £400 million the UK owes Iran from a decades-long deal.
“The UK government understood a lot earlier that the revolutionary guards afraid of losing control of Iran started taking individuals hostage in Iran as bargaining chips for the money the UK owes Iran. They knew this and did not sit down with us and explain that this is part of their chess game. If anything the UK government ‘pretended’ it away. What we have had is the three wise monkeys; pretend it’s not happening.
“It took more than two years for the British government to acknowledge that Nazanin had her human rights violated, to acknowledge that she was innocent.
“They constantly talk a lot about how Nazanin is a dual-national implying that she is a lower class national from white national. They will use that to emphasise that there is limits to what they can do; justifying why they are doing nothing.”
Just like with Ana, there was never any evidence produced to say that Nazanin was a spy. Until Boris Johnson in 2017, then foreign secretary made the serious blunder of saying that Nazanin was teaching people journalism, which consequently was used by the Iranian government as evidence that Nazanin was a spy, and increased her prison sentence.
“The revolutionary guards took Boris Johnson’s gaff to officially classify Nazanin as a spy and to start their propaganda.”
Since Nazanin’s arrest in Iran in 2016, more UK nationals have been taken hostage in Iran; businessmen, charity workers, academics, all accused of being a spy, partly because the foreign secretary promised to pay Iran the money it owes them but didn’t. So is the UK government doing anything to help release them from prisons like Evin where Ana was held and where Nazanin is?
“The government’s basic instinct is do the minimum is has to, to manage expectations. The staff we talk to genuinely care, they are sympathetic and they will be asking the Iranian foreign ministry at every meeting to release Nazanin but no more than that,” Mr Ratcliffe says.
“The UK government could give Iran what it wants which is the money the UK owes Iran- and she will be released. Or they could make it a very costly experience for the revolutionary guards by imposing sanctions, cancelling their UK visitors’ visa and they could also work with other countries to make it clear that hostage taking by states is criminal and when it happens you call it out like you would with criminal gangs.
“We have not had any of those.”
I suggest that the Iranian revolutionary guards are like a mafia organisation.
“The mafia is a very fair comparison to the revolutionary guards. It is a structure of power; a kind of mixture of criminality and economic and political interest. It is basically protecting stuff, like a protection racket but even the mafia have an honour code in that if you are doing a deal with them, they normally keep their side of the deal. With the revolutionary guards they clearly feel that the UK has said that they are going to pay the money, they didn’t, therefore they are holding people.”
In October 2019, Richard and Nazanin’s five-year-old daughter, Gabriella, who had been in Iran with her grandparents was returned to the UK to start school.
“Nazanin’s life-line was seeing Gabriella when she visited her in prison and now that life-line is gone,” Says Mr Ratcliffe.
When Nazanin eventually returns home to London, she, like Ana Diamond will no doubt need emotional and physical therapy to help get her adjusted to normal life.
“Most people [who have been through mental and physical torture and trauma as political prisoners] go through it largely alone when they come back to the UK because the support network is not ready and waiting. It is an isolating experience, most people suffer through it alone and are often fearful of other people going through it because they know they were innocent but are not so sure about other people and if they are not so sure their relatives will be advising them to not get connect to those people.
“I think Nazanin is so high profile that when she comes home there will be a support network ready and waiting.”
But it is the thousands of nameless humans being tortured in prison in Iran, who are neither dual nationals or have had their cases on an international platform that will never be known, their rape, torture and execution just a forgotten number.
For help and support relating to these matters please contact: https://www.freedomfromtorture.org/