Trapped in a Pandemic: Iran’s Political Prisoners Face COVID-19 Behind Bars

“Our bodies are ruined,” Narges Mohammadi, the imprisoned Iranian journalist and human rights advocate, wrote in July.

“There are twelve of us in the ward who have come down with the coronavirus,” she reported from inside Iran’s Zanjan Prison. “In the last few days since the disease was discovered, they separated us from the healthy people. There are absolutely no facilities or medical care here in the ward. We don’t even have hand sanitizer. They just give out ibuprofen. … I feel totally paralyzed from the knees down. I can’t breathe.”

“I’m thinking this is the end of the line,” she added, “that I won’t make it until morning, that it’s all over and done with.”

Mohammadi’s plight reflects the inhumane and unsanitary conditions prevalent throughout Iranian prisons, where the virus is spreading rapidly. While the regime temporarily furloughed tens of thousands of prisoners earlier this year in response to the pandemic, thousands more – including many prisoners of conscience like Mohammadi – still remain behind bars.

Of course, Iran remains hardly the only country struggling to contain the pandemic in its prisons. Yet the appalling conditions of Iran’s jails, compounded by the large number of political prisoners who occupy them, give Iran a uniquely grim status.

According to a report released last week by the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center, a U.S.-based human rights group, the hygienic conditions of Iranian prisons have continued to deteriorate in recent months. Overcrowding makes social distancing unfeasible. Access to hot water, cleaning supplies, face masks, testing, doctors, and medicine is limited or absent. Prison wards lack disinfection procedures and suffer from poor ventilation.

In late July, Amnesty International found that Iran’s prisons are “catastrophically unequipped for outbreaks.” The organization reported that Tehran has ignored appeals from prison officials to provide resources aimed at combatting the spread of the virus and treating prisoners. To no avail, jails have requested disinfectant products, personal protective equipment, and medical devices.

According to one letter sent by Iran’s Prisons Organization to the Ministry of Health, “security hazards” and “irreparable harm” would result if more wasn’t done to address the problems, especially since the prisons are “populated with individuals who have pre-existing medical problems, use drugs, and/or suffer from malnutrition, anaemia, and infectious diseases such as HIV, hepatitis and tuberculosis.” The letter further states that Iran’s prisons hold “older [people], pregnant women, nursing mothers and their infants who suffer from a weak immune system due to their low socio-economic status and hygiene.”

Thousands of prisoners, in at least eight different prisons, have protested these unsanitary conditions, provoking a lethal response from those in charge. In April, Amnesty International reported that security forces had killed some 36 prison protesters and wounded hundreds more.

Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent Iranian human rights lawyer serving a 38-year sentence for her peaceful activism, began a hunger strike on August 11 – her second in less than six months – to protest the conditions of political prisoners amid the pandemic. “In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis which has gripped Iran and the world,” she wrote in a letter from Evin Prison, “the conditions of political prisoners [in Iran] have become so difficult that it is cruel to continue their detention under these oppressive conditions.” On September 19, Sotoudeh was hospitalized as her condition deteriorated.

The political prisoners jailed in Iran run the gamut of Iranian civil society. In August, the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported that political prisoners have contracted the coronavirus at “alarming rates.” The infected include labor leaders Esmail Abdi and Jafar Azimzadeh, the human rights attorney Amirsalar Davouudi, and the journalist Majid Azarpey. Other infected prisoners of conscience include the Christian convert Mohammad Ali Mosibzadeh, the January 2018 protester Saeed Sharifi, and the journalist Nada Sabouri. The political prisoners also include several Iranian-American citizens and other dual and foreign nationals, though none of them has suffered from any known coronavirus infections.

To be sure, the unsanitary conditions in Iran’s prisons long precede the outbreak of the coronavirus. In a January 2020 report, Javaid Rehman, the United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in Iran, stated that a former inmate in Evin Prison recalled that one hall with a capacity for 150 people held more than 400 detainees. Another former inmate at Evin Prison said that jail officials would not permit him to change his prison clothes for three months. A former prisoner at the Greater Tehran Central Penitentiary said that lice, bugs, and cockroaches populated cells.

The regime has refused to disclose the number of infections in its prisons, but the figures it has released for the country as a whole are increasingly dire. According to Iran’s Ministry of Health, as of September 21, the tally of cases in the country exceeds 425,000, with more than 24,400 deaths. However, the regime has likely underreported even these numbers. A BBC investigation in early August found that the total number of cases is nearly double – and the number of deaths triple – the official estimates. In July, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani estimated that the number of cases totals some 25 million, about 30 percent of the country’s 80 million people.

The individual directly responsible for the welfare of inmates is Asghar Jahangir, the director of the country’s Prisons Organizations. While the United States has few means at its disposal to influence conditions in Iran’s prisons, human rights legislation does provide the authority to impose sanctions on Jahangir. Such a move may have limited practical impact, but it would let inmates know they have not been forgotten.

For her part, Narges Mohammadi may actually be among the lucky ones in Iran’s prisons: In August, her husband, Taghi Rahmani, reported that she appears to have recovered from the virus. Still, her ordeal remains far from over. Arrested in 2015 and sentenced in 2016 to 16 years in prison, she still requires treatment for a preexisting lung disease and weakened immune system as well as for beatings she sustained during her transfer to Zanjan Prison.

In the meantime, she and her fellow detainees will continue to face exposure to the coronavirus. For many of them, their incarceration may well be the end of the line.

Image: Human Rights activists attend the birthday party of jailed Iranian Human Rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, outside the embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran on May 31, 2019 in The Hague, Netherlands. Photo by Pierre Crom/Getty Images

 

Filed under:
About the Author(s)

Tzvi Kahn

Research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) focusing on Iran. Follow him on Twitter (@TzviKahn).