Leyla and Parham on a boat crossing the Bosphorus. Picture courtesy of, and copyright owned by, Jonathan Lewis.
On Friday I had a story in the Times recounting the horrific ordeal of an Iranian woman who fled persecution by the regime in Tehran.
Leyla was tortured and gang-raped by five men for speaking to her fiancé Parham, a dissident who had fled to Turkey. The couple got married here two weeks ago. Their true identities have been concealed because family members are unaware of Leyla’s ordeal.
One has to be very careful in checking the veracity of these kinds of stories, particularly in cases such as this where the subjects are asylum seekers and have an obvious motive for lying.
In this case, I was shown medical and psychiatric reports verifying Leyla’s story. Also, having interviewed the couple for more than four hours and after spending a good deal more time with them, I felt convinced they were genuine.
As I made clear in the story, Leyla could not categorically identify her attackers as being linked to the Iranian state, but there was strong evidence to suggest they were.
Her interrogators questioned her regarding her whereabouts on the days of anti-government protests. They also revealed knowledge of her phone conversations that suggested someone had been tapping her mobile. After the attack, when she received calls threatening to release a video of the rape onto the internet, the callers succeeded in finding her phone number even after she changed it.
A confusing aspect was that her assailants went to some length to abduct her secretly. My gut feeling, and that of the Iranian journalist and translator who helped me with the story, was that the people who attacked her were likely to be affiliated with the country’s Basij militia, but were probably not acting under any direct orders.
Though finally free from persecution, the couple still have serious problems, not least the strain of the years-long asylum application process. Leyla has been left with serious physical and psychological damage as a result of the attack, which cannot be adequately addressed in the provincial Turkish town where the asylum procedure requires them to live.
They nonetheless show an inspiring determination to get on with their lives. I wish them all possible luck for the future.
Someone has reposted the story to Facebook. You can read it here.