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‘Black hole of evil’: My life in Nazanin’s prison

Marina Nemat (r) was in the same prison as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in the early 80s
Image: Marina Nemat (r) was in the same prison as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe (l) in the early 80s

A woman who spent time in the same jail where a British mother is being held accused of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government has revealed the torture, sexual abuse and threats she endured as a teenager in the “black hole of evil”.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is currently serving a five-year prison sentence after being arrested at Tehran airport in April 2016 as she attempted to return home from a visit to see her family.

She is being held at Evin Prison which Amnesty International has criticised for denying prisoners medical care and proper food, while human rights campaigners in Iran have described its curbs on visiting rights “cruel”.

There is nothing to suggest she is being tortured, but ex-inmate Marina Nemat tells Sky News of the horrifying treatment she endured in the women’s wing at the jail:

:: One day, I looked around me, and I had lost my freedom, my family, my religion, my name, and my dignity

Evin Prison in Tehran has a wing of political prisoners
Image: Evin Prison in Tehran has a wing of political prisoners

Two members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard came for me on January 15, 1982, and arrested me at home in Tehran.

I was 16-years-old. It was about nine or 10 o’clock at night.

They put me in a car and drove me north to Evin Prison – a compound that has many buildings in a large area north of Tehran surrounded by tall brick walls, barbed wire, and guards with guns.

I was blindfolded upon arrival and taken in. They took me along hallway after hallway after hallway.

I couldn’t see much, but I could see that there were many people sitting by the walls along the hallway.

I was told to sit on the floor and wait. It was very quiet.

Eventually, someone called my name, and I was taken for interrogation.

A door closed behind me and I was told to sit. I couldn’t see the man questioning me because I was still blindfolded.

“Have you attended protest rallies against the government?” he asked.

I said I had. It was not some state secret. I went to rallies almost every day after school with my friends.

My parents knew, the principal knew, the shopkeepers knew. I didn’t wear a ski mask on the streets of Tehran. What was the point of lying?

“Have you written articles against the Government?” he said.

“Yes, in my school newspaper.”

He wanted to know the whereabouts of a girl who I hardly knew. I didn’t know where she was.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, husband Richard Ratcliffe and their child.

:: Boris Johnson apologises to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe over ‘anguish’

They took me to another room where they took off my blindfold. I was in a small room with two men: Ali and Hamehd.

There was a desk, two chairs, and a bare wooden bed.

They handcuffed me and noticed that my hands would easily slide out of the cuffs without much effort. I was about 6.4 stone (40.8kg).

They laughed and put both my wrists into one cuff, and, as it clicked, my right wrist cracked.

The torture had not even begun yet. I screamed. At that point, if the devil appeared and asked me to sell him my soul and he would return me home to my mum, I would.

I would have sold my soul with whipped cream and a cherry on top. I would have done anything to get out of that room.

They tied me to the bare wooden bed. I was lying down on my stomach. They lashed the soles of my feet with a length of cable that looked like a garden hose but was not hollow.

This is the most common method of torture in the Middle East. Why? Because our nerve ends are in our feet.

With every strike, my nervous system would explode, and then it was magically put back together again, and I was wide awake for the next.

Boris Johnson

A place beyond pain.

I began to count the strikes, but I forgot how to count. They eventually stopped beating me and made me sit up.

I looked at my feet, and I laughed out loud. My feet looked like overgrown party balloons with toes on them, indigo blue. I looked like a cartoon character. They thought I was resisting, so they beat me more.

Torture is not really designed to get information, because the tortured tells the torturer what he wants to hear; torture is designed to kill the human soul.

When they succeed, they stop. If they don’t, then they will execute you.

And they are not trying to just kill your soul, they are trying to kill the soul of your family and your country and the world. This is why torture is a crime against humanity.

:: Boris Johnson ‘endangered’ Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s life

Nazanin Raghiri-Ratcliffe has been in Evin Prison since June 2016
Image: Nazanin Raghiri-Ratcliffe has been in Evin Prison since June 2016 (file pic)

I was sent to 246, a public women’s cellblock in Evin, where I was with a few of my school friends and many other young women.

There was another form of torture in Evin. Sometimes girls were called for interrogation at midnight and they were returned to the cellblock at 5am with no visible torture signs.

If you knew the girl, you would go up to her and ask, “Where were you last night?”

And she would give you some lame excuse like, “They took me for interrogation and nothing happened”.

Yeah, right. That didn’t happen in Evin. But then she would give you the look that said, “Get lost. I don’t want to talk about this”. So you would respect your friend and go away.

They called me for interrogation about five months after my arrest. It was daytime. My interrogator Ali was there. He took off my blindfold and looked me straight in the eye.

“Listen carefully,” he said.

“You had a death sentence for being an enemy of God. I reduced it to life in prison. You’re going to be in prison forever and nobody cares.

“You’ll become my wife, or I’ll arrest your parents and your boyfriend.”

I knew he was serious. I knew anything could happen in Evin.

If he arrested my parents, I wouldn’t have a home to go back to.

“I’ll do anything you ask. Just leave my family alone,” I said. He told me I had to convert to Islam from Christianity. I did. He even changed my name.

One day, I looked around me, and I had lost my freedom, my family, my religion, my name, and my dignity.

How much more can you take away from a person?

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe's family fear Boris Johnson's statement could harm her case

I was being raped over and over again in solitary confinement in Evin at the age of 17, and it was absolutely legal. I couldn’t even complain about it.

The conditions in Evin Prison have not changed a great deal since I was there in the 80s.

Torture and sexual abuse are still widely used. I have campaigned for the release of many Evin prisoners. Some of them have been released, but others are still there.

People ask me how and why I survived.

When I was stuck in a black hole of evil made by men, I needed to remember that even though it seemed that the world had forgotten my friends and me, there were still people out there who cared about us.

My cellmates helped me remember that. I was released in March 1984, more than two-years after my arrest.

I take this opportunity to remind Nazanin Ratcliffe, Saeed Malekpur, and other Evin prisoners that they are not forgotten.

We care. We’re doing our best to make sure the world knows about their ordeal and does its best to bring them home.

Do not lose hope.

:: Marina Nemat was incarcerated in Evin Prison from 1982-1984 for her views against the Iranian Revolution. She escaped to Canada in 1991 and regularly speaks about her experiences to students as well as at the annual Oslo Freedom Forum. She has written in support of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, but is not alleging the British mother has been tortured. Visit her website.

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    California ‘torture parents’ plead not guilty

    Louise and David Turpin appear in court for her arraignment in Riverside
    Image: David and Louise Turpin face 94 years in prison if convicted of the alleged torture and abuse

    The parents of 13 children have appeared in court accused of abusing and starving them and chaining them to their beds in their squalid California home.

    David Allen Turpin, 57, and his wife Louise Anna Turpin, 49, their hands and legs shackled, appeared calm as they pleaded not guilty on Thursday to multiple charges of abuse, torture and imprisonment.

    The pair were arrested on Sunday after their 17-year-old daughter jumped out of a window at their home in Perris, about 70 miles east of Los Angeles, and used a mobile phone to call police.

    She had been planning the escape with one of her sisters for two years, but the sibling, who also managed to flee the house with her, became frightened and returned to the property.

    Louise and David Turpin appear in court for her arraignment in Riverside
    Image: Louise Turpin and her husband David reject the allegations

    Prosecutors say the alleged abuse by the Turpins started many years ago when the family lived in Texas, and intensified over time as they relocated to Murrieta, California, in 2010, before moving to their current family home in 2014.

    In a news conference, Riverside County district attorney Mike Hestrin revealed more information about the charges, along with harrowing details of the alleged abuse, describing it as a case of “human depravity”.

    :: A happy family? Photos of chained siblings

    The children, aged between two and 29, were held captive at home and denied basic freedoms.

    The only thing they were allowed to do was to write in their journals – hundreds of which are being reviewed for evidence.

    They were only allowed to shower once a year, it is claimed, and if they ever washed their hands above their wrists they would be accused of playing with the water and punished.

    Louise and David Turpin appear in court for her arraignment in Riverside
    Image: David Turpin is also charged with committing a lewd act on a child under 14

    The district attorney described the alleged torture as “severe, emotional, physical abuse”, and revealed that at least one of the children had once been hogtied.

    “The victims said as a punishment they would be tied up with ropes but when they were able to escape, their parents began using chains and padlocks,” he said.

    Other punishments included “frequent beatings” and “strangulation”.

    Mr Hestrin said the children would be chained up for weeks, or even months at a time, and would not be freed to go to the toilet.

    The prosecution claims when they were not chained up, they were kept in separate rooms and fed very little and on a schedule.

    It is alleged the mother and father would buy food for themselves but not give any of it to their sons and daughters.

    Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin announces charges against David Turpin and Louise Turpin...
    Image: Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin announced the charges

    “They would buy food, including pies, apple pies, pumpkin pies, leave it on the counter. let the children look at it but not eat the food,” said Mr Hestrin.

    :: Captive siblings: Police reveal how girl escaped

    Its is alleged that when the family lived in Texas the parents at one point lived apart from most of their children and would drop off food from time to time.

    Mr Hestrin said the children had been starved so much they were malnourished, their growth was stunted and their muscles deteriorating.

    The eldest, a 29-year-old woman, weighed just over five-and-a-half stone (82lbs), and a 12-year-old appeared to be the size of an average seven-year-old.

    Mr Hestrin said there had been no torture charge filed in relation to the two-year-old because the toddler appeared to be “getting enough food”.

    None of the victims had seen a doctor in more than four years, and none of them had ever seen a dentist, according to the district attorney.

    The Turpin family
    Image: The Turpin family

    “They were not allowed to have toys, although there were many toys found in the house that were in their original package and had never been opened,” he said.

    The victims lacked a basic knowledge of life. Many of the children did not know what a police officer was, he continued.

    When the 17-year-old was asked if there was any medication or pills in the home, she did not know what they were.

    The parents turned their home into a private school called Sandcastle Day School, where the father was listed as the principal and its six pupils were the couple’s younger children.

    However, at least one of the older boys attended college classes, Mr Hestrin said, but his mother would accompany him, wait outside and take him home once his class had finished.

    Mr Hestrin said the entire family would sleep during the day, going to bed at around 4am or 5am, and be up all night.

    When officers raided the home they found one of the siblings, a 22-year-old, chained to a bed and evidence suggesting two others – aged 11 and 13, had been freed moments before their arrival.

    David Turpin and Louise Turpin appear in court for their arraignment in Riversid
    Image: The couple were arrested on Sunday

    The couple were charged with 12 counts of torture, 12 of false imprisonment, six of child abuse and six of abuse of a dependant adult.

    David Turpin was also charged with performing a lewd act on a child, a girl, under the age of 14.

    When asked to elaborate on the lewd act charge, Mr Hestrin said: “We are alleging that David Turpin touched one of the victims in a lewd way by using force or fear.”

    The parents – who were married in 1985 in Pearlsburg, Virginia, when he was 23 years old and she was 16 – could each face 94 years in jail if found guilty.

    “A case like that sticks with you and haunts you,” Mr Hestrin said.

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    • The normal house and family cars that hid a horrible secret

    • Captive siblings: Police reveal how girl escaped

    • A happy family? Photos add to mystery after siblings found chained to beds

    • Adults and children found chained to their beds in a US home

    “Sometimes in this business you are faced with human depravity, and that’s what we have here.”

    The Turpins are next due in court on 23 February.

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