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Britain-based Transport Union Urges Iran to Free Detained Labor Activists

Iranian labor rights activists Sepideh Gholian and Esmail Bakhshi appear in a screen shot of an Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting documentary “Tarahi Soukhteh” (A Burnt Plot), broadcast Jan. 19, 2019.

A major international labor union has called on Iran to immediately release several labor activists whom it says appear to have been tortured in custody late last year.

The London-based International Transport Workers' Federation made the appeal in a letter addressed to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, shared with VOA Persian on Monday.

International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) letter to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Jan. 25, 2019
International Transport Workers' Federation letter

In the letter dated Jan. 25, ITF General Secretary Stephen Cotton said there was "credible evidence" that confessions by several labor activists in a recently-broadcasted state television program were obtained through threats, beatings and torture.

"Such violations of basic human rights must cease immediately," Cotton wrote to Rouhani. "I call on you both to stop such torture, and to immediately release these detainees."

There was no public response from Rouhani to the letter by late Monday. ITF represents 20 million workers in 140 countries.

The state TV documentary Tarahi Soukhteh (A Burnt Plot), broadcast Jan. 19, accused labor activists involved in recent protests at the Haft Tapeh sugar cane plantation in southwestern Iran of having ties to the United States, Israel and an exiled Iranian Marxist group. The program included confessions by activists Esmail Bakhshi and Sepideh Gholian, who were arrested Nov. 18 for joining Haft Tapeh workers in daily peaceful protests that began Nov. 5 in the town of Shush.

The striking workers had been demanding months of unpaid wages and the removal of private owners, whom they accuse of mismanaging and abandoning the sugar cane complex, founded in the 1950s.

After being released on bail in mid-December, Bakhshi and Gholian declared they had been beaten during their several weeks in detention, a period in which their televised confessions were recorded. Bakhshi made the accusation in a Jan. 4 Instagram post and Gholian backed him up in a Jan. 9 Twitter message saying she had seen him being beaten. In a video broadcast Jan. 21 by BBC Persian, Gholian said she also had been beaten. Authorities re-arrested both activists Jan. 20.

Iranian officials have denied the torture allegations. Speaking to reporters Jan. 14, Iranian prosecutor general Hojatoleslam Montazeri accused Bakhshi of "pursuing political goals."

In a Jan. 24 statement, New York-based group Human Rights Watch said Iran's broadcast of what it termed "forced confessions" by Bakhshi and Gholian "only raises more concerns about torture and mistreatment" of activists in Iranian detention.

The Iranian state TV program also accused the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company (SWTSBC) of being part of a plot behind the recent Haft Tapeh strike. In his letter to Rouhani, ITF leader Cotton said the accusation is incorrect and expressed "extreme concern" for all members of SWTSBC, also known as the Vahed Syndicate.

"We urge you to make immediate assurances as to their ongoing liberty and safety and look forward to receiving said assurances from you," Cotton wrote.

SWTSBC has expressed solidarity with Iranians protesting poor labor conditions in various industries around the country in the past, including the workers at the Haft Tapeh plantation.

This article originated in VOA's Persian Service.