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Iran Arrests Activist Claiming Torture As More Bad News Emerges For Workers

Haft-Tapeh Sugar Mill workers protesting in November for unpaid wages..

Sepideh Qolian, a civic activist who has been campaigning to prove that she and a labor leader, Esmail Bakhshi, were tortured during their imprisonment in November-December, says she has been arrested again on Sunday January 20.

The two were first arrested together with several other sugar mill workers who protested for months last year demanding unpaid wages among other things.

"I've been arrested," Ms. Qolian wrote in a very brief tweet on Sunday.

This came as more bad news emerged about workers' declining purchasing power pushing their living standard to an all-time low.

While Qolian and Bakhshi have been complaining about their torture in custody, Iranian government officials categorically denied claims of torture in Iranian prisons.

Iran's state TV on Saturday broadcast videos of Qolian and Bakhshi, as well as another activist who said they had not been treated badly while in Jail and "confirmed" that they were linked to a foreign-based Marxist group. The Marxist organization has officially denied the alleged link as a fabrication by Iran's Intelligence Ministry.

The video was broadcast while the case is still open at a court in Susa, southwestern Iran with no verdict issued yet.

Iran is known for broadcasting forced confessions by inmates on state TV. International human rights watchdogs have repeatedly condemned Tehran for forcing inmates to make "confessions" against themselves.

According to Qolian, the videos were recorded under duress in jail. She had said before, that security officials had threatened her to show the video of her "confessions" on TV if she ever claimed she was tortured in jail.

After the broadcast, Qolian promised to follow the torture case even more seriously. She had said earlier that she would bear witness to support claims of torture made by her and Bakhshi.

Meanwhile, Bakhshi's lawyer has denied Iran's Prosecutor General's statement ruling out torture, adding that "Some officials are trying to terminate the torture case by saying that violence against workers may have been exercised outside the prison, when they were being transferred to jail."

The defense lawyer said the prosecutor's statement is against the impartiality of judicial officials, adding that the law prohibits everyone including the prosecutor from passing judgements on a case before the court issues its verdict.

Bakhshi had said: "I was beaten up and tortured to death for no reason," adding, "I was so badly battered that I could not move for 72 hours in my solitary confinement cell. The pain was so unbearable that it made sleeping impossible.”

"Weeks after my release, I still feel intolerable pain in my broken ribs, left ear, and testicles," he added.

Over 1,300 activists have expressed support for Bakhshi and other workers in petitions signed by workers and activists in Iran and abroad. They have demanded that Bakhshi should be given a chance to publicly protest and complain against what happened to him in jail.

According to the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) Iranian workers have been protesting violation of their rights and demanding their unpaid wages during recent years. In one of the latest cases, 100 workers of Asalouyeh Petrochemical plant went on strike in January protesting non-payment of their wages for five months, ILNA reported.

Other reports of recent cases of labor unrest in Iran include an action by bus drivers in Tehran and sugar mill workers in Haft Tappeh.

The current economic crisis in Iran which is marked by rising inflation and unemployment, has been seriously affecting people's livelihood particularly after the U.S. withdrew from a nuclear agreement with Iran and re-imposed sanctions on Tehran during 2018.

Meanwhile, according to ILNA, Iranian workers' ability to cope with the cost of living has hit a new low. Workers’ wages cover only 25 percent of the current cost of living, as a result of devaluation of national currency further. A year ago, wages covered 50 percent of a worker’s expenses.

This means working class families are struggling with poverty especially that in many factories and workplaces even the meagre salary is not paid on regular basis.

This also shows that U.S. sanctions have only played a role in the last few months in compounding Iran’s already declining economic situation.

According to the unions, the minimum wage in Iran is 11,150,000 rials per months, roughly $115, while the cost of living is around 40 to 50 million rials or $500 at the current rate of exchange for U.S. dollar.