Political Prisoners Excluded from Mass Release as COVID-19 Spreads
Iranian authorities have excluded peaceful political prisoners from the mass prisoner release that was announced by Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi in late February 2020 to control the growing COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in the country, the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) has learned.
Political prisoners have been forced to remain in the country’s overcrowded jails even as inmates around them have been transferred out due to suspected coronavirus infections or exhibited symptoms of it, sources with detailed knowledge of prison situations throughout the country told CHRI on the condition of anonymity.
According to CHRI’s interviews with these sources, at least eight prisoners have contracted coronavirus in the following locations:
- 5 prisoners in Ward 4 of Evin Prison in Tehran
- 2 prisoners in Central Prison in Quchan, Khorasan Razavi Province
- 1 prisoner in Central Prison in the city of Orumiyeh, West Azerbaijan Province
Iran’s Health Ministry confirmed 1234 new COVID-19 cases on March 6, 2020, increasing the official count of total infections to 4747.
At least 124 people have died since late February according to the ministry’s count, but on February 28 the BBC reported that at least 210 people had died mostly in Tehran and Qom alone, according to hospital sources.
Political Prisoners Require Tehran Prosecutor’s Consent
“Except for two or three people, such as [human rights activist] Shahnaz Akmali and [labor rights activist] Mohammad Karimi, none [of the political prisoners] have been allowed to leave,” Roghieh Zare Pourheydari, the wife of Rouein Otoufat, a political prisoner who has been in Evin prison since August 2017 and who is currently in Ward 8, told CHRI.
Pourheydari continued: “From day one, instead of hiding the truth and lying, they should have… granted furlough to the prisoners. We are worried and waiting impatiently. They are giving us the runaround. The deputy prosecutor says he has given the prosecutor [Ali Alghasi-Mehr] a list of prisoners to be released and their furlough will depend on his consent. So far nothing has happened.”
Alghasi-Mehr, a staunch supporter of cruel and inhumane forms of Sharia (Islamic law) punishments, was appointed as the prosecutor general of Tehran by Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi.
“Some prisoners like my husband are very careful because they have prison experience since the 1980s,” Pourheydari said. “But you cannot control the situation without hygienic materials. The authorities have not distributed any such materials in prisons since the coronavirus outbreak in the country; no disinfectants, no masks, only a pair of thin latex gloves, which are not helpful.”
Pourheydari also said that her husband had informed her that five prisoners in Ward 4 had contracted the virus. (Upon entering Evin Prison, some prisoners are initially held in Ward 4 before being moved to their assigned ward.)
“Ward 4 is the prison’s quarantine facility, but it’s not for medical reasons,” she said. “It just means when they want to transfer security [political] prisoners to public wards, they first take them to Ward 4.”
“My husband told me that five prisoners in Ward 4 have caught the coronavirus and some of the inmates there have been transferred to Ward 8,” she added. “He said the situation is worrisome because the virus is spreading. We can’t do anything about it except go to Evin and shout [at the authorities].”
On February 26 and again on February 29, Iran’s Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi issued orders allowing prisoners that met a set of requirements to go on furlough (temporary leave) to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infections in the country’s prisons.
On March 3, Judiciary Spokesman Gholam-Hossein Esmaili said 54,000 prisoners had been released on furlough, and that the judiciary was concerned about the health of all prisoners.
But family members of political prisoners told CHRI that their loved ones have been left behind.
Tehran-based defense attorney Mohammad Hossein Aghasi, who had been chosen by several political prisoners’ families to relay their concerns to the authorities at Evin Prison, told CHRI that a prisoner in Ward 4 had been transferred to an unknown location after contracting coronavirus.
“In Room 8 of Evin Prison’s Ward 4, Ali Nabi Nouri, the owner of a credit institution who’d been imprisoned for financial wrongdoing, contracted the coronavirus and on Monday [March 2], was removed from the ward along with his mattress and rings,” he said.
Aghasi added: “On Sunday [March 1], I went to Evin Prison to talk with the supervisor, Mr. Vaziri, about my clients and follow up on granting them furlough. There were many families of political prisoners there as well. The deputy prosecutor asked them to appoint three representatives. They chose me as one of the representatives along with two other lawyers and we went and held talks [with the prison authorities]. The deputy prosecutor said ‘we are gathering the names of the prisoners and giving them to the prosecutor’s office who will decide who will be released on bail.’ My clients say not even one of their cellmates has been released so far.”
At the Greater Tehran Central Penitentiary (GTCP), also called Fashafouyeh, which is located 20 miles south of Tehran, Amir Hossein Moradi and more than 20 other political prisoners have been transferred to the facility’s Ward 1 quarantine unit after showing symptoms of COVID-19, a source told CHRI.
Moradi was suffering from a severe fever and coughing badly before being transferred, added the source.
Moradi and two of the other prisoners were sentenced to death after the state’s deadly crackdown on street protests that erupted in Tehran and dozens of other Iranian cities in November 2019.
On February 27, the conservative Persian-language news site Serat reported that a prisoner there had died from suspected coronavirus. The report identified the individual as 44-year-old “Hamidreza” and said he had been convicted of fraud.
At the Central Prison in Orumiyeh, a prisoner named Salman Soleimaninejad had been transferred to an unknown location after exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19.
On March 4, Nasser Gharebaghi, the head of the Taleghani Hospital in Oroumiyeh, confirmed that a prisoner suffering from fever and coughing had been admitted for treatment at an unidentified location and that he was awaiting the prisoner’s coronavirus test results.
Civil rights activist Karim Deyhimi told CHRI that he had been informed by an Arab ethnic rights activist currently imprisoned in the city of Quchan, Razavi Khorasan Province, that at least one prisoner had tested positive for COVID-19 and other prisoners had been quarantined.
“Rahman Asakereh called from the prison in Quchan and said that one of the prisoners suspected of having the coronavirus had been tested after prisoners pressured [the authorities] and the test result was positive. Also, another prisoner suspected of having the coronavirus has been quarantined. Rahman said he himself has a fever and is coughing and itching but doesn’t know whether it’s because of the coronavirus or not. He hasn’t been tested so far.”
Few Female Political Prisoners Granted Leave Despite Growing Coronavirus Threat
Reza Khandan, the husband of prominent imprisoned human rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh, meanwhile told CHRI that only a few of the inmates held in Evin Prison’s Women’s Ward have been granted furlough even though prisoners held in nearby wards had been transferred to unknown locations after exhibiting coronavirus symptoms.
Khandan, who visited Sotoudeh on Sunday, March 1 said: “At the meeting, Nasrin only had a multi-purpose detergent bottle in her hand—the stuff used for cleaning walls and things. She had no gloves or masks. Hand sanitizers used to be available in the clinic and the convenience store, but now they are very hard to find even outside of prison. Sanitary products don’t exist in the prison. Having masks and sprays are a joke. They say 54,000 prisoners have been granted leave. That’s a very big number. We assume they are telling lies unless proven otherwise.”
“As of today [March 5] when I spoke to Nasrin, five of the 41 inmates in the Women’s Ward have been granted furlough,” said Khandan, who had previously expressed serious concerns about his wife and her cellmates’ safety amid the coronavirus outbreak.
“Also, bail has been set for Hengameh Shahidi,” he added. “Fortunately, no new prisoners have been sent to the Women’s Ward and, according to Nasrin, there will be no new entries until they spend 14 days in quarantine to determine if they have the coronavirus or not.”
Khandan continued: “But when I spoke to prisoners in Evin Prison’s Ward 4, they said five inmates had been removed for having symptoms of the coronavirus and had not returned. If they had a cold, they would have been taken to the prison clinic and returned. But these five individuals have not been returned. One of them had just recently entered the prison. Ward 4 has about 250 prisoners, about 40 of whom are political prisoners.”
Elsewhere in the city of Shiraz, Fars Province, the families of political prisoners in Adelabad Prison have been been told that they will not be granted leave.
A relative of one political prisoner held there told CHRI: “The presiding judge said he doesn’t care about what their sentence is; he won’t grant furlough. The majority of the inmates in Ward 12 have been convicted of financial fraud. In the past few days, most of those who have been released are from this group. We don’t have exact numbers, but as far as we know, more than 80-90 of the ward’s 300 inmates have been given furlough and the process is continuing. But they haven’t even given masks or gloves to the political prisoners and their furlough requests have been turned down. They have not even approved furlough for [prisoner of conscience] Hossein Sepanta, even though he suffers from a spinal cord injury and other inmates had to carry him to the toilet.”
“Hardheaded” Judicial Officials Ignoring Public Health Experts Warnings
Mahmoud Taravatrouy, a practicing attorney based in southern Iran, told CHRI that judicial officials were approving new prison entries despite warnings by public health experts that newly admitted prisoners could cause COVID-19 prison outbreaks.
“More than the coronavirus, our social foundations have been endangered by an epidemic of irresponsibility and lack of foresight. We saw examples of that in late February when the authorities were trying to hide the truth about the dangerous spread of the coronavirus. Today is the fifth of March and the courts have still not stopped operating. They are still sending people to prison and the lawyers are busy with cases and have to meet with their clients. I myself have received a notice that I have to go to court for a security case on March 8.”
Taravatrouy added that local prisons were facing shortages in crucial medical and sanitary supplies, which had also been reported in Tehran.
“Apart from legalities, we are facing an ethical dilemma. When we imprison people, rightly or wrongly, we restrict their choices of lifestyle, their health care, type of clothing, type of food and hygiene on the basis of laws and regulations. Right now, we are facing a huge shortage of health care products outside prisons… so obviously there are bigger problems inside… We have an ethical and humanitarian responsibility to be more conscious about people whose lives have been restricted in prisons by the judicial and security establishment.”
According to Taravatrouy, “Articles 3, 20 and 156 of Iran’s Constitution, particularly the latter concerning the judiciary, are about “upholding individual and social rights and the realization of justice,” but the authorities have been arbitrarily and unjustly sending people to prison during a major health crisis that could endanger them:
“On February 26, and later on February 29, the judiciary chief issued orders to his administrators. First of all, why so late? Secondly, in his February 26 decree, he made exceptions which will cause problems. And in the February 29 decree, he stated that furlough could be denied if necessary, thus giving a free hand to hardheaded authorities in the judicial system.”
“What we are dealing with today is arbitrary decisions,” he added. “For instance, one judge sets bail at 100 or 150 million tomans ($23,720-35,580) and another judge sets bail at a billion tomans ($237,206) for the same situation and identical charges. This is unjustified discrimination that essentially puts the accused or convicted prisoners in a situation where they cannot post bail for release.”
Taravatrouy continued: “We have been hearing reports about restrictions being imposed in the prisons. Our concern is about detention centers that are not under the supervision of the State Prisons Organization [charged with ensuring the safety of prisoners] and do not operate much within legal parameters, even though the judiciary [to which it reports], and the prisons organization are responsible for the protection of prisoners’ lives.”
Read this article in Persian.