‘We were so scared that at night we held each other’s hands and prayed’

‘We were so scared that at night we held each other’s hands and prayed’

For Atena Fooladi Helabad, the stress of her arrest and detention was so great that it brought on her period.

The Christian convert, who was 28 years old at the time, said she had “listened to so many news reports about what happened to political prisoners that in those moments when I was alone, I imagined some male agents may enter my cell and rape me.

“I was very scared, so I started to pray,” says Atena, whose birth name was Samira. “And because of the stress, suddenly my period began. 

“There were no female officers there. I knocked on the cell door and a few minutes later a male officer came. Embarrassed, I asked him for a sanitary pad.”

Atena spent 12 days in detention following her arrest in February 2013, for the first five days of which she was held in the notorious “Alef Ta” ward of Isfahan’s Dastgerd Prison.

Her description above relates to her very first moments in the prison, after being handed a chador (head-to-toe Islamic dress) and placed in a solitary cell, in which she was held for around four hours.

“I think they adjusted the temperature of the cell themselves,” Atena recalls, “because it kept decreasing and got colder and colder so that it became unbearable.”

Later on, Atena was transferred to another cell in which two of her Christian friends were also being held.

Charges were brought against 14 members of Atena’s house-church in all, including two of her four sisters.

The charges were: “propaganda against the holy regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran”, “membership of groups opposed to the Islamic Republic of Iran”, “forming a group and recruiting members – in coordination with foreign organisations – to propagate evangelical and Zionist Christianity”, “forming house-churches, organising meetings and providing illegal books and literature, with the aim of attracting more members in order to oppose the holy regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran”, and “inappropriate relationships [because unrelated members of the opposite sex had gathered together, and the women weren’t wearing headscarves]”.

Atena says she was interrogated eight or nine times during her detention – always late at night “when our minds were very tired and we couldn’t think well” – and that “if we answered their questions in a short or tactful way, they would hurl insults at us and tear up our answer sheets so we would have to write everything again”.

Atena’s interrogators also told her they would arrest her parents and two youngest siblings, and stop them from being able to continue their studies at university.

After one interrogation, Atena and her sister Sara were taken to two extremely cold solitary cells as a punishment for not answering as desired.

But even in the shared cells, Atena says the women were made to feel “very uncomfortable”. 

“The toilet and shower in the cell were in one section, and the wall which separated them from the rest of the cell wasn’t very high, and there was no door,” she explains. “Since there was a camera in the cell, and the officers could watch us, we were very uncomfortable going to the toilet or taking a shower, and two of us would hold a chador in front of that area when the other person went to the bathroom.”

After five days in Alef Ta, the women were transferred to the main section of the prison, but their ordeal was far from over.

“The first thing they did there was to physically examine us,” Atena says. “It was very hard, because we had to take off all our clothes and then they inspected our bodies to see if we had any drugs hidden inside us.” 

The women were then detained alongside other prisoners who had committed a range of serious crimes, including murder. “Meanwhile,” Atena adds, “some homosexual prisoners looked at us in a very nasty way and insulted us and threatened to rape us. We were so scared that, at night, under our blankets, we held each other’s hands and prayed.”

The next day, the women asked to be transferred to the “quarantine” section of the prison – where prisoners are held before being transferred or released.

But even there, they were made to feel extremely uncomfortable.

“The room was about 18 square metres in size,” Atena explains. “It was very cold and dirty, and had no windows – just a rug and a small area to the side with a toilet and two showers. But if someone was taking a shower, the water would flow into the rest of the room and we regularly had to make barriers to stop it. 

“From the first day there, each of us was given a disposable cup, and that was the cup we were to drink from until we left. And we could only guess if it was day or night because of the types of meals we were given. 

“Sometimes there were 15 of us in that one room, and we could hardly find space to sleep even if all of us lay on our sides.”

Eventually, after 12 days, and having seen all her Christian friends and siblings released before her, Atena was freed on bail of 10 million tomans (around $2,500).

Four months later, she and her fellow Christians were sentenced to a year each in prison, a two-year travel ban, and lashes – 40 for the women and 60 for the men – for their “inappropriate relationships”.

The sentence of lashes was eventually dropped, but the prison sentences were upheld. And although Atena says that she and her sister Sara had decided to serve their prison sentence, they were advised by their pastor to leave the country following the arrest of more members of their group.

Even then, the sisters hoped to return: “We weren’t prepared to leave the country permanently,” Atena says. “We had even bought return tickets.

“Although about seven years have passed since our departure from Iran, it is still difficult for me to digest our unexpected departure,” she adds. “I am the type of person who makes plans for everything, so I still haven’t come to terms with this sudden departure. 

“When we left Iran, my father had a cast on one of his legs, and my parents were left alone there in a very bad situation, and we were very upset about their condition. 

“We couldn’t even say goodbye to our fellow converts – who were very close friends – or even to our country. 

“I feel like a child separated from its mother, having been separated from Iran. When I hear the national anthem or follow the news about Iran, tears flow unconsciously from my eyes.”

You can read Atena’s full Witness Statement here.