Iran Election: Political Prisoners Dying Under Candidate Raisi’s Watch
At Least Two Political Prisoners Have Died in Past Four Months
Niknafs Was Jailed Despite Health Conditions That Made Him Unfit for Prison
June 7, 2021 – Another political prisoner has died in state custody two weeks before Iran’s Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi, who is ultimately responsible for the care of prisoners, runs for president.
“The reported death of Sassan Niknafs in the Greater Tehran Central Penitentiary reveals the mounting human toll of the Iranian judiciary’s policy of imprisoning individuals for criticizing the government,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).
“These individuals shouldn’t be in prison in the first place yet they’re dying in state custody while Raisi focuses on his latest power grab,” he said.
Niknafs’ death was reported just four months after another political prisoner, Behnam Mahjoubi, died in state custody after Iran’s State Medical Examiner had concluded he could not withstand incarceration.
Since Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appointed Raisi to judiciary chief in March 2019, at least three political prisoners—Niknafs, Alireza Shirmohammadali, and Mahjoubi—have died in state custody, though this number only includes reported deaths and does not include the significantly higher numbers of death by execution or deaths of non-political prisoners.
Niknafs—who was imprisoned despite displaying multiple physical and mental health issues—reportedly died in Firouzabadi Hospital on June 5 after displaying “declining consciousness” while being seen by prison clinicians, according to a statement by the Tehran Prisons Organization that was published by the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) on June 7.
“The death of Sassan Niknafs could be deliberate murder due to the authorities’ lack of attention to his inability to endure imprisonment,” tweeted Iranian human rights lawyer Saeid Dehghan on June 7.
“Based on Article 290 of the Islamic Penal Code, it would be considered intentional murder if a person deliberately commits an act that leads to a crime that was unintentional but committed with the knowledge that the action could result in a crime,” Dehghan wrote.
According to Article 502 of Iran’s Code of Criminal Procedure, if imprisonment worsens the health of a prisoner suffering from physical or mental illness, the judge could suspend punishment after consulting with the medical examiner until the prisoner recovers.
Niknafs Was Jailed Despite Serious Physical and Health Conditions
Since July 27, 2020, Niknafs had been serving a five-year prison sentence on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and against “the founder of the Islamic Republic and the supreme leader.”
Judicial authorities sent Niknafs to prison despite his history of attempted suicide and his need to receive “daily medication” during his imprisonment, as well as requiring dozens of doctors’ appointments during his detainment, according to information in the statement by the Tehran Prisons Organization.
“They have not informed his family but sources from inside prison say his death was announced through the prison loudspeaker and condolences were expressed to the prisoners,” Ali Sharifzadeh, Niknafs’ attorney, told BBC Persian on June 7.
Political prisoners in Iran are singled out for harsh treatment, which often includes denial of medical care. The UN has expressed serious concerns over Iran’s continued denial of appropriate healthcare to detainees, which violates the UN’s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.
Dozens of Prisoner Deaths Since 2003, Three Since Raisi Appointed Judiciary Chief
Iran’s State Prisons’ Organization and judiciary chief to which it reports are responsible for the health and well-being of all prisoners.
Since 2003, at least 32 political prisoners—all individuals who were imprisoned in Iran after being accused of criticizing state policies—have died in state custody, according to investigations by CHRI.
The deaths occurred because of beatings while in custody, denial of critically needed medical care, or other gross negligence or ill-treatment on the part of the authorities.
The lack of prosecutions of high-level officials for the deaths of individuals in state custody reflects a judiciary that allows intelligence and prison officials to commit egregious violations with impunity as well as the absence of mandatory investigations, autopsies or publicly available medical examiner’s reports when a death occurs in state custody.
There are also no effective grievance mechanisms for the families.
Fears Grow for Political Prisoner Mohammad Nourizad and Others
Countless political prisoners including the dissident Mohammad Nourizad are meanwhile in urgent need of medical treatment.
“We are seriously concerned at the mistreatment of Mohammad Nourizad and his continued imprisonment for expressing his opinion,” UN human rights experts said in a statement in May 2021. “Furthermore, his continued detention despite medical professionals finding he cannot stay in prison given his serious health condition, and the resulting denial of adequate medical care, may amount to torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
“His case is emblematic of the situation many Iranian political activists face in detention,” added the experts. “He must be immediately released.”
One month after political prisoner Alireza Shirmohammadali was murdered in the Greater Tehran Central Penitentiary in June 2019 after being unlawfully held in a ward with inmates convicted of violent crimes, a parliamentary faction announced a proposal to help counter what it identified as a “serious problem” of prisoners dying in state custody—though no serious action has been taken to stop the deaths to date.
“This mounting death toll of political prisoners in Iran is the result of a decades-long policy of treating critics of the state as less than human, and the judiciary chief’s refusal to protect prisoners or hold those who mistreat them accountable,” added Ghaemi.
“Raisi has displayed disregard for human life throughout his career—from serving on a committee that paved the way for thousands of political prisoners to be extra-judicially executed in 1988 to the mounting toll of political prisoners presently dying from lack of medical care,” he added.
“This is what political prisoners are forced to endure with Raisi as the head of the country’s judiciary; imagine what the Iranian people will face if he also takes the presidency,” Ghaemi said.