Kurdish activist Anvar Hossein Panahi released from Iranian prison


It was barely dawn when Iran security officials arrived at the home of Anvar Hossein Panahi six years ago to take him away from his family. Without an arrest warrant, they barged into his home, insulted his family, roughed up Anvar, and led him away, blondfolded and tied up, to the Toyato Hillux pick-up trucks they came in.

His cousin, Arsalan Ouliayee, was also arrested that morning. They would not know the charges levelled against them until they were severely tortured. The account of Anvar and Arsalan’s ordeal — given to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center by Anvar’s exiled brother, Amjad– is gruesome:

Anvar and Arsalan were in the Intelligence Ministry’s interrogation chambers in Qorveh for six months, where they were severely tortured. They broke Anvar’s ribs and he subsequently suffered a kidney infection that went untreated. They plied Anvar’s nails off, and his body was blanketed with hot iron rod marks.

Two of Anvar’s cellmates, Lotfollah Lotfollahpour and Shahrokh Bibak, who both currently reside in Iraqi Kurdistan, have described the torturous tactics that Anvar endured. For example, one evening during the winter of 1386 or 1387 (2007-08/2008-09), Anvar’s jailers tied him up outdoors in the prison yard and threw ice water over his naked body. By that morning he had passed out from the cold six times, only to be revived and forced to endure the same torture again and again. They kept reviving Anvar in the hopes that they could extract a confession from him despite his innocence. They had a pre-written confession which they held in front of Anvar, hoping that he would finally succumb to the pain and sign the false confession.

What the regime wanted Anvar to confess to was “waging a war against God (muharibih), collusion with the Komala Party, and conspiracy to overthrow the regime”. Anvar is a civil activist who’s worked with an NGO on “addiction recovery issues” and served as a Dehgolan province dignitary. Though his brother, Amjad, was involved with the Komala Party, there is little evidence Anvar has ever been a member. His activism, however, still marks him as a target for the regime and his relationship to his brother could also implicate him. Under the auspices of Iran’s draconian legal system and often vaguely-worded laws, the government could extinguish any political activist or opponent with drummed-up charges like the ones being used to target Anvar. But Anvar’s only real crime was being Kurdish and he was only a threat to the government because he wasn’t quiet about it. In July 2008, both Anvar and his cousin were sentenced to death.

Six years later, it is only due to the tireless campaign of political and human rights activists that Anvar has been released alive. His death sentence was reduced to a 6-year sentence in March 2009 after protests and a prison hunger strike were organized in his favor. Last week, he walked out of prison on furlough with bail.

But the world to which he returns to is not much different than the one that put him in prison in the first place. One of his brothers, Ashraf, a human rights activist who worked for the Committee for Defense of Prisoners on Hunger Strike in Sanandaj was mysteriously killed while collecting evidence for Anvar’s case. His other brother, Amjad, a member of the Komala Party, is exiled in Germany. Other members of his family, including his sisters, are continuously harrassed, arrested, imprisoned and tortured by the regime. According to the Committee of Human Rights Reporters, more than 33 members of Anvar’s family have been “arbitrarily arrested”.

They are among hundreds of Kurds in Iran arrested for their activism or their proximity to it, by family or friends. When activists like Anvar Hossein Panahi decide to speak out against injustices in the political or legal system, they don’t just risk their lives but the lives of anyone tangentially associated with them, effectively making a dangerous sport of dissidence.

But dissidence and political activism for Iranian Kurds like Anvar is not just political subversion — it’s one of the few ways available to them to escape the repression of daily life in Iran. In his witness statement to the IHRDC, Amjad noted mournfully

When one reaches the age of puberty they realize that they cannot live in Iran while they are treated as second-class citizens and suffer below the poverty line while also living in an area that is administered by force.

Anvar and Amjad grew up in a country where their language and history were not just shunned — they were outlawed. Societal discrimination was sanctioned by the state. Their very heritage labelled them as heretics and subversives, foreigners and enemies of the state. If Anvar and Amjad were “radicalized” in any way — as the state claims them to be — it was not their “Kurdishness” that radicalized them, it was the state itself. And it was the state’s laws that were manipulated to persecute them legally and imprison them.