The impact of ‘white torture’ on Iranian Christians

The impact of ‘white torture’ on Iranian Christians

Mvoices spoke recently with Article18‘s Mansour Borji about the “white torture” experienced by Iranian Christian detainees, and the ways in which Article18 supports victims. This article was first published by Mvoices, under the headline “White Torture, a Story about the Suffering and Resistance of the Iranian Christians”, and is reproduced here with kind permission.

Assad Binakhahi for Mvoices.

“White torture” is a psychological torture technique, in which inmates are held in solitary confinement for very long periods of time.

It is intended to produce complete sensory deprivation and isolation in the victim. It is one of the most brutal torture methods used in Iranian prisons, alongside physical torture.

Many Iranian prisoners of conscience, including Christians, Baha’is, journalists, women and civil rights activists, have been the victims of white torture at the hands of the Islamic Republic. One of the main goals of this torture is to infiltrate the identity of the victim and influence his or her personality in the long run.

Based upon your experience helping former prisoners after their release, what signs and symptoms may appear in victims of white torture and solitary confinement, and can these symptoms be categorised?

MB: Based on my experience and observation, people do not respond the same way to exposure to a traumatic event. Despite these differences, a number of common physical and mental symptoms occur to varying degrees.

There are some more obvious physical reactions among the victims, such as weakness or extreme fatigue, irregular heartbeats, shortness of breath, dizziness, chronic daily headaches, and digestive disorders.

But it seems that mental health and psychological problems have more negative impacts on their lives than physical ones. Many of the interviewed victims complained of anxiety disorders, phobia or persistent and extreme fears, frustration, depressive episodes, and sometimes even paranoia or scepticism.

One of the most common disorders among the victims of white torture is sleep disturbance. In addition to insomnia, many of them have constant nightmares, in which the victim recalls the traumatic events and experiences them over and over again. These evoked memories result in frequent or constant restlessness and stress.

The reaction of some victims is to distance themselves from individuals, communities or activities that might remind them of distressing events that occurred in the past. Sometimes this reaction is accompanied by distrust and suspiciousness of others or frustration with life, all of which disrupts their social and professional lives.

Displays of emotions that seem out of control, the inability to concentrate, and feelings of constant stress will lead victims to further isolation, especially if they have no knowledge of the reasons for these emotions or the way to deal with them.

The psychological trauma caused by detention and white torture is often long-lasting and far-reaching, and greatly affects the family and the social, religious, and professional relationships of the victims. Therefore, its psychological consequences will have a negative impact on the victims, and on their families and communities.

How do you help these victims, and how can their families and relatives help to improve their health?

MB: Article18 has organised multi-day workshops to help raise awareness about trauma-related psychological problems. Participants in these workshops are often either Christians who have experienced detention, imprisonment and white torture for their ideological activities, or they have family members who have experienced “secondary trauma” in a different way.

In the workshops, we have invited experienced counsellors and psychotherapists to help these people through instruction, art therapy, group therapy, and personal meetings.

Treatment of such injuries and the elimination or mitigation of their effects will take years and cannot be achieved with a multi-day workshop or time-limited counselling. But we have focused on some short-term goals in these workshops. In short, we help the victims of white torture to become aware of what they are experiencing and how they can take practical and long-term steps to help themselves (care of self and others). The family members and the church are also encouraged to provide the victims with an environment that provides better understanding and treatment by identifying trauma signs and symptoms.

In addition to education and awareness, professional counselling by a psychotherapist or a psychiatrist will require encouragement and sometimes financial support. Having emotional and spiritual support can also play an important role in treatment. Therefore, we also provide the victims with pastoral (spiritual) counselling in our care, and a support plan.

What else have the interviewed prisoners of conscience suffered during the term of their imprisonment?

MB: Solitary confinement and high-pressure interrogations, which can last for days, weeks, or even months, cause victims to suffer mental anguish. One of the first consequences of severe pain or suffering is being disconnected from the outside world and not knowing where the victim’s loved ones are, or if they are OK. Giving misinformation to a prisoner, such as an arrest, illness, or death of a parent – and in many cases even threatening to interrogate or assault the detainee’s siblings, spouse, or children – can lead to the victim’s psychosis.

Insulting and offending the victim’s religious beliefs, making false accusations against the victim, such as affiliation with hostile states, and threatening the victim with a death sentence for apostasy are common types of pressure applied to Christian prisoners. In many cases, using deception, inducement or threat to force the prisoner to deny and renounce his or her Christian faith, or to make false statements against other active Christians and their religious leaders, generates a deep sense of shame and disgrace, which may still cause emotional distress many years after the torture has ended.

Considering the large number of Christians who have been arrested in recent years and the relative awareness of the circumstances that each of them is facing, it can be confidently said that the overuse of solitary confinement has left the prisoners with a feeling of being in prison permanently.

Indeed, other deprivations must be considered, such as lack of access or limited access to proper sanitation and hygiene facilities, insufficient sleep or food, and incommunicado detention. Sometimes the interrogator intentionally leaves the prisoner alone in solitary confinement for several days and prevents the prisoner from contacting others. It has been frequently heard in interviews: “After a few days, we just prayed that the interrogator would come and take us for interrogation so that we could talk to at least one person…”

Despite all the pressures, some prisoners still protest in prison using such methods as hunger strikes and sit-ins, and some of them also continue to fight even after their release. Can we say that, despite all efforts, the regime has failed to disidentify the victims?

MB: Interrogations are usually conducted through a methodical approach for which the interrogators are trained by the regime. Most often, they introduce themselves as “experts” instead of interrogators. They are taught how to use psychological tactics to apply the necessary and sufficient pressure to “break” and force the prisoner to make a confession and incriminate him or herself or others, even if these confessions are fabricated by interrogators or security analysts.

But different personality traits, beliefs and moods of the interrogators will also play an important role in the torture process. Sometimes an interrogator clumsily pushes to the point where the prisoner will be encouraged to resist more. For example, when a mock execution is arranged, the prisoner will face death, after which the fear of death that is used as a weapon in the hands of the interrogator against the prisoner will be neutralised. The outcome depends on the psychological readiness and resistance of the prisoner to face mental torture. Thus, although some victims may “break down”, many others maintain their beliefs whether in the presence of the interrogator or before the court and then in prison. In some cases, this has come as a surprise and even led the judges to admire the victims. A lawyer told me that his Christian client, despite the judge’s insistence, refused to tell an “expedient lie” to deny his Christian faith in exchange for being acquitted of all charges that led him to face up to 10 years in prison. The judge turned to the lawyer and told him: “If we had two Shi’ites like this, we would have ruled the world!”

As is clear, our religious identity is rooted in a set of (internal) beliefs and values as well as our (external) ceremonies and rituals. Efforts to disidentify Christian prisoners begin immediately after their arrest and detention. They are urged and even threatened not to introduce themselves as a prisoner of conscience, e.g. not to mention “being Christian or a Christian activist” as the reason for their arrest but instead that they were “acting against national security” or guilty of “propaganda against the state”.

Christian converts, most of whom are converted from Muslim backgrounds, are denied access to the Bible and are given the Qur’an instead. They are usually not allowed to celebrate major festivals of Christianity, such as Christmas or Easter. Efforts to change their beliefs back continue to the point where they are sometimes forced to attend the classes of an Islamic cleric in the detention centre or prison, which are arranged as weekly meetings to “guide” and “root out suspicion”. Another prime example of identity denial is when Christian converts who have served or are serving their sentences in prison for Christian activities are also flogged for drinking Communion wine.

Efforts to change their religious identity – either internally, or their external and social manifestations – also continue in their lives outside prison. In addition to shutting down the Persian-speaking churches and confiscating their property, “running or establishing house-churches” or even “membership” of them is considered a crime today. Among the religious rites emphasised in the Christian faith, “baptism” and “the Eucharist” are common among all groups, including Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants. Since these rites for a Christian are as important as the prayers for a Muslim, not allowing Christians to attend church services and perform them clearly targets their religious identity.

Threats by interrogators not to attend church services or socialise (even in the form of friendships) with other Christians have been reported as common in all cases. Considering the increasing number of judgments given by the revolutionary courts, this deprivation has gone beyond just threats and taken the form of judicial rulings. Thus, in addition to imprisonment and exile, a “ban on membership in political and social parties, groups or factions” and on “attending a special training course to learn how to build a lifestyle based on Islamic morals and values” have recently been added as supplementary punishments for Christian converts!

Notwithstanding the foregoing, the vast majority of the leaders and coordinators of Iran’s underground church movement (who may be living in Iran or outside) are among those who have experienced and endured the pressures imposed to disidentify them. However, they are determined to continue working hard. Therefore, I agree with this hypothesis that the regime’s efforts in this field have not only failed, but have even been counter-productive.

Some articles written about white torture have specifically focused on the colour white – from all-white walls to white uniforms and so on. But when we read the testimony of the prisoners including those in the book entitled “White Torture” by Narges Mohammadi, the colour white has not been mentioned. Have you ever encountered the issue of colour in your conversations with the victims?

MB: White torture is a type of psychological torture technique, in which sensory deprivations are repeated in various forms in all cases.

However, our organisation has documented only one case that has referred to the use of colourlessness (white) for Christian victims. In the case of Christian detainees, there are many reports on the prolonged use of blindfolds and custody in dark cells without lights. These reports contrast completely with the usual cases of white torture, such as 24-hour bombardment of lights, or constantly playing the same music.

Are there any differences between male and female prisoners when they are in prison and when they show symptoms after release?

The use of cultural taboos and gender-based abuse by interrogators is completely familiar to many ideological activists who have been the victims of white torture. This is sometimes to the benefit and sometimes to the detriment of male or female prisoners in detention. The symptoms experienced by recently released prisoners vary from prisoner to prisoner. Some symptoms are shared, but some are not.

Perhaps for cultural reasons, female prisoners are more diligent than men in expressing the injuries of white torture and attempting to find a cure. On the other hand, the forms of psychological and identity-based trauma are different in victims and may remain with them for a long time and even forever. Although gendered insults and slurs are used for both males and females, they have different effects on each of them. Some female prisoners have complained of depression, damaged trust, and attachment disorders for months or years.

Male prisoners can temporarily keep some psychological signs and symptoms of torture away by finding new routines and getting back to normal life, but all of this will return as soon as they encounter incidents, signs, or situations that trigger one or more old memories. For example, I have often heard that the former prisoners become fearful when they see a person in a uniform, even in a European or American country, or they experience anxious responses, such as palpitations, upon hearing the sound of a doorbell or phone. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, the negative impacts of psychological torture also affect the employment status of the victims.