Why We Must Oppose Solitary Confinement

Update Friday, Oct. 6, 2023: It’s been one year since Mahsa Amini’s death while in custody of the Iranian Guidance Patrol, launching a renewed feminist uprising in Iran. Just this week, Iranian human and women’s rights campaigner Narges Mohammadi has received the Nobel Peace Prize “for her fight against the oppression of women in Iran and her fight to promote human rights and freedom for all.”

“In awarding her this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to honour her courageous fight for human rights, freedom, and democracy in Iran,” according to the Nobel Prize announcement. “This year’s Peace Prize also recognises the hundreds of thousands of people who, in the preceding year, have demonstrated against the theocratic regime’s policies of discrimination and oppression targeting women.”

Shortly after Mohammadi authored this article in 2021 (the first she has written in English) calling for the end of “white torture”—a form of solitary confinement used in Iranian prisons—she was arrested. She currently remains in prison.

Much pain and suffering has been alleviated because of human progress in science. Sadly, science has also been abused to inflict pain and suffering. Undemocratic, illegitimate governments have survived by using science to suppress people.

A clear example is in the inhumane, authoritarian regime of Iran where political and ideological prisoners are held in a form of solitary confinement known as white torture.

Solitary confinement means being locked in a very small space. Four walls and a small iron door that are all the same color, often white. There is no natural light inside the cell. There is no fresh air.  No sound is heard there, and you cannot talk or associate with other human beings.

News and information do not reach you. There are no newspapers, magazines, books, paper or pens. You have nothing in there except three thin, run-down blankets and a shirt and pants. An interrogator can allow you to use a bathroom and toilet or not.

Interrogations are conducted with threats, intimidation, and pressure.  Prisoners are subjected to false accusations and to psychological pressure to force false confessions. There is no contact with family, friends, or lawyers.  You are literally isolated, passive, and lonely.

Loneliness and helplessness affect the human mind day by day. Psychologists say that the human mind suffers serious disorders over time if deprived of news and information and use of the human senses of sight, hearing and touch.

Sometimes anxiety and fear, and sometimes sleep disorders, lack of concentration and thinking, and sometimes even illusions dominate the prisoner to a point where they are unable to make decisions or even think straight. This is when interrogators start to feed a prisoner false and toxic news and information.

The prisoner, because of unbearable psychological pressure, brainwashing and white torture, may eventually succumb to the interrogator’s demands. To get rid of this horrific condition, he or she may confess against himself and others.

A prisoner may come to trust an interrogator during solitary confinement. That is an element of Stockholm Syndrome. When a prisoner sees only the interrogator and does not talk to anyone but their torturer, the victim may become dependent on the punisher, even while understanding the relationship between the prisoner and the interrogator.

I met a woman in ward 209 of Evin prison who believed that her interrogator had fallen in love with her, and she was cooperating fully with him. She collaborated with the interrogator against herself. The interrogator took full advantage of this situation, luring her into horrible confessions. The prisoner was eventually executed.

Iranian-Swedish doctor Ahmad Reza Jalali was sentenced to death in October 2017 on espionage charges and spent months in solitary confinement in Evin prison. His execution, expected in December 2020, was delayed after a wave of international appeals to spare his life.

After being held in solitary confinement, Iranian wrestler Navid Afkari agreed to take part in a fake reconstruction of the murder scene in 2020. Navid was immediately executed afterward. He was falsely accused and convicted of murdering a security guard during 2018 protests in Iran.

A group of Iranian Kurdish prisoners wrote that after two years in solitary confinement, they were willing to accept any confession, accusation, and charges, but no longer being in those horrific cells. They signed and put their fingerprints on confessions with blindfolds on their eyes.

They were sentenced to death and hanged based on these false confessions in a so-called court and executed in 1993. Their writings reached me from prison.

I met a woman who believed her interrogator had fallen in love with her, and she was cooperating fully with him. She collaborated with the interrogator against herself. The interrogator took full advantage of this situation, luring her into horrible confessions. The prisoner was eventually executed.

Solitary confinement is the mother of the death penalty.

As a result of confessions forced by the psychological pressure of solitary confinement and white torture, Iranian courts order executions, long prison sentences and deportations.

Solitary confinement must be stopped for two reasons.

Solitary confinement is a cruel and horrific torture, with effects on individuals that causes deep suffering and remains until the last day of their lives.

Solitary confinement is used to threaten and intimidate political and civil activists in Iran to halt their activities and to deter the struggle for freedom and democracy.

In recent months I have been actively opposing white torture with a group of civil society activists.
I have endured solitary confinement and spoken extensively with others who endured solitary confinement. I found similar effects on people from different backgrounds with different tendencies.

I based a 2020 documentary film, White Torture, and a two-volume study by the same title, on 16 interviews with former political, civil, and conscience prisoners.

In March 2021, I filed a lawsuit at the judicial offices of the Islamic Republic of Iran demanding prosecution of officials who authorize solitary confinement.  At least 80 other former prisoners have done so as well.

We need help to put our fight against white torture on the international agenda.

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Narges Mohammadi is vice president of the Defenders of Human Rights Center in Iran, headed by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi. She was held in solitary confinement several times between 1998 and 2020 for her human rights advocacy.