Grave Concerns for Prisoners in Iran Amid Coronavirus Outbreak
Tehran Prison Lacks Medicines, Sanitary Supplies as Some Inmates Exhibit “Severe” Cold Symptoms
February 28, 2020 – The Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) is extremely concerned by reports that prisoners in Iran lack access to medicines as well as hygiene and sanitary products amid a rapidly rising death toll from a coronavirus outbreak in the country.
“We’re receiving disturbing reports that Iranian authorities are neglecting their domestic and international legal obligations to protect prisoners from contracting COVID-19 during this health crisis,” said CHRI Executive Director Hadi Ghaemi.
“Prison populations are more susceptible to viral outbreaks than the general population because of their confined living conditions,” he added. “Iranian authorities should ensure the safety and wellbeing of all prisoners and exhaust all means of protecting this vulnerable population.”
Tehran’s Evin Prison Has “Run Out” of Medicines and Sanitary Products
Wards in Tehran’s Evin Prison have “run out” of medicines, sanitary, and hygiene supplies, the relatives of two dual national prisoners held there told CHRI.
Reports have meanwhile surfaced of a prisoner held elsewhere in the city dying from “flu-like” symptoms.
On February 28, the Iran Metropolitan News Agency reported that “Hamidreza,” a 44-year-old man in the Greater Tehran Central Penitentiary (GTCP), had died from “flu-like symptoms of the mysterious coronavirus… a few days after he started to cough.”
“Investigations are continuing to determine the cause of the man’s death,” added the report.
An Iranian-born British charity worker who has been imprisoned in Evin Prison’s Women’s Ward since 2016, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, has meanwhile come down with a “sore throat” and “cold sweat” as others in her ward have also been exhibiting cold symptoms, her husband Richard Ratcliffe told CHRI.
“The biggest shock for me is that in the women’s ward they have run out of cleaning products—no disinfectant, no bleach, no sanitary gel,” Ratcliffe told CHRI on February 27, 2020.
“The prison clinic has no medication,” he added. “The guards have disinfectant for themselves, but the prisoners have none.”
Ratcliffe explained that supplies are supposed to be distributed every month but “they have run out and there is no budget to buy more, and no stock in the prison shop outside of washing-up liquid. Similarly, the prison clinic seems to have run out of medication.”
The wife of imprisoned Iranian-born British national Anoosheh Ashoori, a retired engineer, said her husband’s Ward 7 in Evin Prison also lacked crucial medical and sanitary supplies.
“My husband said that there are no masks or sanitizers available or basic medicines such as paracetamol or cold tablets,” Sherry Izadi told CHRI on February 28.
Izadi said prisoners held there had not been informed about how to protect themselves and “haven’t had access to any doctors for about 6 weeks.”
She added that the inmates in Ward 7 had implemented their own set of rules and measures to protect themselves from contracting the virus and that they currently have access to some basic cleaning supplies such as bleach and dishwasher access.
The UN’s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners recommend that “…Where hospital facilities are provided in an institution, their equipment, furnishings and pharmaceutical supplies shall be proper for the medical care and treatment of sick prisoners, and there shall be a staff of suitable trained officers.”
Iran’s State Prison Regulations are also explicit regarding the medical care of prisoners. Article 118 states, “Examination, and when necessary treatment of sick convicts is the responsibility of the prison or training facility.”
Prisons Suffer from Overcrowding, Unhygienic Living Conditions
Documented overcrowding and unhygienic living conditions as well as denial of access to adequate medical treatment in Iranian prisons—including in Tehran’s Evin Prison, Rajaee Shahr Prison in Karaj, and the Greater Tehran Central Penitentiary—have exacerbated fears of COVID-19 prison outbreaks as well as worries that ailing prisoners will struggle to access treatment.
Between 2003-2018, at least 29 political prisoners died in Iranian state custody due to torture, denial of medical care, or gross negligence on the part of Iranian authorities, according to investigations by CHRI. That number does not include deaths in the general prison population or death by execution.
Iran currently has the highest COVID-19-related death toll outside of China.
An official said that 34 had died from the virus as of February 28, but hospital sources told the BBC that the number was at least 210.
Experts suggest the reason why Iran has a higher fatality rate than the global average is because of inaccurate reporting of the number of infections in the country.
A public health expert who helped develop HIV prevention programs in Iran told CHRI that prisoners should be temporarily released to the extent possible, shouldn’t have close contact with other people, and Iranian authorities should reduce the number of new entries “because they can bring in infection from the outside.”
Because they’re living in close proximity to each other, “if one gets infected, the others can easily get infected,” Kamiar Alaei told CHRI. “They have to break the chain of transmission.”
On February 28, Health Minister Alireza Zali told reporters that the judiciary “should grant prisoners furlough [temporary release] to significantly reduce their numbers in Tehran’s prisons on the basis of their criminal classification and subject to the prisoners receiving health certificates.”
Two days earlier, the head of the State Prisons Organization, Asghar Jahangir, recommended that “special preventive measures should immediately be taken” to prevent COVID-19 prison outbreaks “including daily and continuous disinfection of the facilities, giving prisoners access to health facilities and providing training to prisoners and guards necessary for self-care.”
On February 28 Jahangir added that “all group activities, including athletic, artistic, cultural and vocational training activities, even community prayer, will be suspended in all prisons throughout the country.”
The officials’ statements come on the heels of calls by the families of political prisoners—including the country’s most prominent human rights attorney—that their loved ones are being held in unsafe living conditions and should be released.
“Iranian authorities should protect the right to health of all Iranians including prisoners whose lives are in the hands of the judiciary and State Prisons Organization to which it reports, which have repeatedly failed to protect them,” said Ghaemi.