Iranian activist who took iconic picture of woman’s defiance tells of her Tehran jail hell

By Liz Perkins | Originally published: The Telegraph

Yalda Moaiery at the Courage in Journalism Awards
Yalda Moaiery at the International Women’s Media Foundation 2023 Courage in Journalism Awards CREDIT: Vince Bucci/Getty Images

An Iranian political activist has told The Telegraph how she was kept in solitary confinement and tortured while being held in a notorious jail in Tehran.

Photojournalist Yalda Moaiery, 42, came to the attention of Iranian authorities after Donald Trump, the former US president, tweeted her photograph of a demonstration at Tehran University – changing her life forever.

Mr Trump shared the iconic image of a female student raising a clenched fist after a smoke grenade was fired by Iranian riot police in December 2017, in protest at the country’s economic situation.

He did so to mark the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution and in the caption he wrote: “40 years of corruption, 40 years of repression, 40 years of terror. The regime in Iran has produced only 40 years of failure. The long-suffering Iranian people deserve a much brighter future.”

But Ms Moaiery became a target for authorities after her photograph gained such prominence and she told The Telegraph it led to her time behind bars at the brutal Evin Prison.

‘There were conflicts with the police’

She said: “I took that in 2017 and it was a demonstration. People were protesting over the economic situation at that time.

“I took that picture at Tehran University and there were some conflicts between the students and guards and police.

“Suddenly that girl went to the main door of the university and raised her hand to protest and I took that picture suddenly there.

“One year after that, nothing happened from the system but one year later Donald Trump used that on his Twitter. It was for the 40th anniversary of the revolution and he wrote something against the system and everything.

“Everything started at that time. They started to arrest me, asking me a lot of questions – the interrogations took like one year.

“After that, they sentenced me to two years in jail, it still remains and I have to go to jail if I go back to Iran. My life changed after that picture.”

Last year, she was arrested again and on Sept 19 2022, she was taken to Qarchak Prison for two months before being moved to solitary confinement in Evin Prison in Tehran.

She was jailed in the wake of the mass demonstration, which marked the first day of the movement Women Life Freedom.

“They wrapped my scarf like a rope under my neck and they pushed me to a van. The sexual abuse happened in the last seconds before they wanted to put me into the van,” she said.

“In the first hours, they didn’t even recognise me, they thought I was a normal person. When we were going to the police station, they asked for my social security number, they recognised me and everything changed.

“I was told I had two months in public prison in Qarchak Prison and one month in a solitary cell in Evin Prison – the [in]famous one.

“Public prison you know I could handle it. It’s like high school or something, a lot of women are living together.

“We didn’t have good access to baths or toilets. We didn’t have enough food, bread, water. We didn’t have enough oxygen.”

She added: “The solitary cell is completely different, it was really hard for me to handle it. I was thinking of killing myself because of those conditions.

“My interrogations would be at night. It’s a torture technique actually.

“For example, when you are going to rest, you are going to sleep. I was taking a shower and they started knocking and say you have to get ready and go to another dark place and sit in front of them.

“I couldn’t see them at all. It was a very very small place, they covered a mirror and I could only see myself there.

“This place is the worst place that you could ever imagine – the name of that place is the end of the world.”

She was released on bail and after several months was one of 80,000 people to receive the amnesty of the country’s leader, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Her bravery during her 23-year career has taken her to the Middle East and Africa and has recently had her work published in The Washington Post.

Ms Moaiery was recently honoured by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s 34th Annual Courage in Journalism Awards at the Washington DC home of the publication’s proprietor and founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, and his fiancée Lauren Sanchez

“It was amazing, one of the best ceremonies. Between the three, that one was amazing,” she said.

“Mr Bezos was very friendly and cool, it was great.

“After my speech, he shook my hand and Miss Sanchez hugged me. He said, ‘I’m really interested by you’ and he was very kind to me. I appreciate that.”

‘It was great honour’

She was awarded the Wallis Annenberg Justice for Women Journalists Award for her incredible strength and perseverance despite being arrested and detained in Tehran, leading her to also be honoured at the Los Angeles home of the US journalist Willow Bay, who is married to Disney managing director Bob Iger.

“It was a great honour for me to meet Bob Iger, he was so kind and nice to me,” she said.

“I was super-lucky to meet these people during this trip.”

A final awards ceremony was held in New York at the Bank of America in recognition of the media industry’s most intrepid women.