Covert testimonies reveal sexual assaults on male and female activists as a women-led uprising spreads
Haje Omeran, Iraq — A trickle of people passes through a normally busy border crossing in the mountains of northern Iraq. “It’s a big prison over there,” one Iranian woman says, gesturing to the hulking gate that marks the border with Iran’s Islamic Republic, which has been convulsed by protest for over two months.
A portrait of the founder of Iran’s clerical regime, Ruhollah Khomeini, looms against a backdrop of rolling hills studded with streetlights. Snatches of travelers’ muted conversations punctuate an eerie silence.
Fear of indiscriminate arrest has made many reluctant to risk the journey. Some of the few who cross say the noose is tightening: protesters gunned down, curfews in the border villages and nighttime raids on homes.
In hushed tones, they speak of female protesters in particular, and the horrors they say some have endured in Iran’s notorious detention facilities.
Iran’s government has closed the country off to non-accredited foreign journalists, regularly shuts down the internet and suppresses dissidents’ voices with mass arrests. An extreme climate of fear prevails in Iran as the crackdown intensifies.
One Kurdish-Iranian woman, whom CNN is calling Hana for her safety, says she both witnessed and suffered sexual violence while detained. “There were girls who were sexually assaulted and then transferred to other cities,” she said. “They are scared to talk about these things.”
Women have played a central role in Iran’s uprising since it ignited two months ago. The slogan “Women, Life, Freedom” reverberates through anti-regime demonstrations in its original Kurdish (Jin, Jiyan, Azadi) and in Persian (Zan, Zendegi, Azadi). It is a nod to the 22-year-old Kurdish woman whose death sparked the protests — Jina (Mahsa) Amini was believed to have been brutally beaten by Iran’s morality police for improper hijab and died days later.
The rights of women have also been at the heart of debate among Iran’s clerical establishment since the protests began. Some clerics and politicians have called for the relaxing of social rules, while others doubled down, conflating the female protesters with what they call “loose women” who were merely pawns in a plot hatched by Western governments.
In one of the most striking comments in the smear campaign against female protesters, Zeinab Soleimani, the daughter of Iran’s revered slain general Qassem Soleimani, accused women in the protests of wanting to “get naked.”
In recent weeks, social media videos have emerged allegedly showing Iranian security forces sexually assaulting female demonstrators on the streets. Reports of sexual violence against activists in prisons began to surface.
With media access inside Iran severely constrained, CNN went to the region near Iraq’s border with Iran, interviewing eyewitnesses who’d left the country and verifying accounts from survivors and sources both in and outside Iran. CNN corroborated several reports of sexual violence against protesters and heard accounts of many more. At least one of these caused severe injury, and another involved the rape of an underage boy. In some of the cases CNN uncovered, the sexual assault was filmed and used to blackmail the protesters into silence, according to sources who spoke to the victims.
Iranian officials have not yet responded to CNN’s request for comment on the abuses alleged in this report.
Armita Abbasi, 20, bore all the hallmarks of a Gen Z-er. Her edgy hairdo was dyed platinum blonde and she had an eyebrow piercing. She wore colored contact lenses, and filmed TikToks with her cats from her living room.
The uprising changed her life, and Iran’s security forces appear to have subjected her to some of the worst of their brutality.
After the protests began, social media posts under Abbasi’s name became charged with unrestrained criticism of Iran’s regime. It is unclear if she participated in the protests. Yet, unlike most Iranian dissidents inside the country, she did not anonymize her anti-regime posts.
She was arrested in her hometown of Karaj, just west of Tehran, nearly a month after the onset of the demonstrations. In an October 29 statement, the government claimed she was “the leader of the riots” and that police discovered “10 Molotov cocktails” in her apartment.
It was an ominous statement that seemed to imply that Iran’s justice system would reserve a harsh punishment for the 20-year-old. But it also served as a denial of a series of leaked accounts on Instagram that had caused uproar on social media in the days since her arrest, and which turned Abbasi — like Amini and Nika Shahkarami before her — into a symbol of Iran’s protest movement.
The contents of the leaked accounts — conversations between medics on Instagram’s private messaging service — suggested that Iranian security forces tortured and sexually assaulted Abbasi.
On October 17, Abbasi was rushed to the Imam Ali hospital in Karaj, accompanied by plainclothes officers, according to leaks from that hospital. Her head had been shaved and she was shaking violently. In the accounts, the medical staff attending to her spoke of the horror they felt when they saw evidence of brutal rape.
An insider at Imam Ali hospital confirmed the veracity of those leaks to CNN. The source asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.
“When she first came in, (the officers) said she was hemorrhaging from her rectum… due to repeated rape. The plainclothes men insisted that the doctor write it as rape prior to arrest,” wrote one member of the medical staff in one of the messages.
“After the truth became obvious to all, they changed the whole script,” wrote the medic. CNN can confirm that four to five medics leaked the messages to social media. All of them said they believed she was sexually assaulted in custody.
“To make it short, they screwed up,” that medic added of the security forces. “They screwed up and they don’t know how to put it together again.”
In its statement, the Iranian government said Abbasi was treated for “digestive problems.” Medics at the Imam Ali hospital said the claim did not tally with the symptoms Abbasi exhibited. Abbasi was also treated by a gynecologist and a psychiatrist, which the medics said was also inconsistent with the government’s account.
CNN has presented the leaked accounts of Abbasi’s injuries to an Iranian doctor outside Iran who said the symptoms as described indicated brutal sexual assault.