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Iran Must Act Now to Protect Prisoners From Deadly COVID-19

February 27, 2020

 

Yazd Prison. Photo from Microphone News.

As the deadly coronavirus COVID-19 spreads in the Islamic Republic of Iran, with at least 19 deaths and 139 cases of the infection confirmed by officials as of Wednesday, February 26, 2020 [1] or much higher according to a recent medical study [2], prisoners are particularly at risk. Prison conditions in Iran are substandard. Overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, lack of proper ventilation, insufficient provision of means for maintaining personal hygiene, lack of access to clean drinking water, and poor nutrition facilitate the spread of diseases. Over the years, Human rights groups including Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran (ABC), have reported on unsanitary prison conditions. Iranian officials have also acknowledged prison overcrowding, but improvements are yet to come and in most prisons, prisoners remain particularly vulnerable to contagious diseases. ABC fears that without effective measures by Iranian authorities, COVID-19 will spread severely among Iranian prisoners. Already 500 cases of infected prisoners have been reported in China [3].  

Iran does not allow human rights monitors access to prisons. However, reports from Iranian prisons and the testimonies of former prisoners are consistent with regards to the deplorable health conditions in prisons across the country.

In a statement on April 27, 2016, a group of United Nations human rights experts expressed concerns about the health of several prisoners of conscience: 

“The condition of several prisoners of conscience with serious health problems has been exacerbated by their continued detention and by repeated refusals to allow their access to the medical facilities and treatment they so urgently require. The denial of medical care, physical abuse, either in overcrowded prisons or in solitary confinement and other forms of torture and ill-treatment exposes prisoners to risk of serious injuries and death… unfortunately, Iranian prisons are no strangers to such tragedies, many of which could have been avoided if authorities exercised proper care [4].” 

In her report published in March 2018, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran pointed to consistent reports “describing inadequate accommodation; imprisonment in cramped cells; inadequate provision of food and water; unhygienic conditions; and restricted access to toilet facilities.” She also reported on prisoners having been denied medical care [5]. 

In his latest report, dated January 28, 2020, the Special Rapporteur [6] reiterated concerns about prison overcrowding and hygiene in several prisons, including Evin, where a former prisoner “had come across a prison hall with a capacity for 150 people holding over 400 prisoners”; Zahedan, where a former inmate reported that “each prisoner was provided with one toothbrush but was forced to buy everything else, including soap … that there were only 12 beds and therefore most inmates had to sleep on the floor... there were only 10 toilets for 200 people”; and the Greater Tehran Penitentiary, where according to a former prisoner, “the cells were infected with lice, bugs and cockroaches and there was only a two-hour window for 400 people to take a shower” and only one hygiene kit was distributed to the inmates in two years [7].

ABC has also documented overcrowding and poor conditions in several Iranian prisons. In March 2019, ABC interviewed a former inmate of Shahid Lajevardi Camp, a prison facility in Farahabad, Mazandaran Province, that houses drug offenders sentenced to non-life prison terms. According to him, the prison houses some 3,000 inmates, nearly triple its intended capacity, with three showers per 700 people, and hot water available once an hour two times a week. Potable water is made available only in the form of morning tea water; it otherwise must be purchased in bottles. Located on a beach, the Shahid Lajevardi Camp is distant from plumbing networks. Tap water is saline and polluted with sand. According to this source and many other former inmates ABC has interviewed, drugs are readily available to prisoners in facilities throughout the country, often with officials’ complicity, raising concerns for high-risk behaviors which may transmit disease [8].

Iranian officials have acknowledged the problem over the years. A number of MPs have attested to the overpopulation of prisons and the overall increase in the number of prisoners across the country in 2018 [9]. In August 2019, before the mass arrest of the November protesters, the head of Iran’s Prison Organization declared the prison population was twice that of prison capacity [10]. 1,100 in Tehran alone, in three days, 270 petty dealers and 900 drug users were arrested according to the Police Chief [11]. According to testimony obtained from an inmate on November 26, 2019, over 1,000 protesters, including injured ones, were transferred to the Greater Tehran Prison [12]. Over 6,000 protesters were arrested in connection with the November 2019 protests, based on data collected by ABC [13]. Mass incarceration of drug offenders and protesters, as well as debt- and involuntary crimes and accident-related imprisonment[ 14] have exacerbated the already precarious prison conditions.

Human rights bodies, including the United Nations and the European Committee for the Prevention of Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, consider that prison overcrowding amounts to “inhuman” treatment: “Overcrowding leads to situations in which detainees are required to live for long periods in deplorable conditions, unsuitable for human dignity and existence and can breach the absolute prohibition of torture [15].” Overcrowding is a source of infections and ill-health and has also been linked to the spread of communicable diseases to both prisoners and staff. Human rights organizations have provided important guidelines to help address the issue [16].The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Nelson Mandela Rules) provide guidelines to ensure the protection of prisoners and their right to health and medical care [17].

Reports are now surfacing suggesting the presence of the virus in Iran’s prison system. According to IranWire, inmates at Evin, Karaj, and Greater Tehran prisons may have contracted COVID-19 [18].Human Rights Activists in Iran news agency (HRANA) has also reported about possible cases of infected prisoners in Orumieh, Qezelhesar, and Khorramabad prisons [19]. If these reports prove accurate, tens of thousands of prisoners and prison staff will be at serious risk.

ILNA news agency has reported that Ali Asghar Jahangir, the Head of Iran’s Prison Organization, held a video conference with prison officials and instructed them to form health committees, disinfect prisons daily, educate inmates and prison staff and provide them with necessary hygiene products, limit visitations, and stop all transfers of prisoners [20]. In the absence of judicial transparency and accountability, it is unclear however who is responsible for implementing these recommendations and what means are allocated to prison officials to implement them. Even in conditions of greater transparency and expertise in hospitals, citizens’ reports about the absence of clear protocols for segregating infected patients and ensuring safe transportation and burials of those killed by the virus are not reassuring [21].

Prisoners’ situation limits their ability to protect themselves from fast-spreading contagious diseases such as COVID-19. Human rights instruments clearly call for prisoners to receive health care at least equivalent to that available for the outside population. The State has the responsibility to provide them with health services and a healthy environment. Iranian authorities must take early and serious measures to prevent the spread of the virus in prisons. This is a public health duty and a human rights obligation.

The UN Special Rapporteur stressed the Islamic Republic of Iran’s legal obligation under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, “to respect, protect and fulfill the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health (art. 12), including those who are imprisoned or detained. As set out in the Nelson Mandela Rules, prisoners’ health care is a state responsibility and prisoners should enjoy the same standards of health care that are available in the community, and should have access to necessary health-care services free of charge without discrimination on the grounds of their legal status (rule 24 (1)) [Paragraph 63] [22].”

Iran’s prisons, detention centers, and camps are overpopulated in great part because of highly punitive post-revolutionary laws [23] and repressive practices, which result in hundreds of thousands of arrests yearly (including of individuals under the age of 18), long pretrial detentions, and harsh prison sentences. The Head of Iran’s Association of Social Workers, who promotes the use of alternative punishments, told ISNA on May 11, 2018, that yearly, about 420,000 prisoners join the prison population [24]. Prisons are filled with prisoners who have committed no crime [25], including hundreds of prisoners of conscience, members of religious and ethnic minorities, journalists, human rights defenders [26], labor rights activists [27]. environmentalists [28], and thousands of peaceful protesters, and even family members of killed protesters who dare seek justice. Cyber Police head Vahid Majid has announced that a special cyber police unit established to “combat rumour-mongers regarding the 'spread of coronavirus in the country'" temporarily detained 118 internet users and arrested 24 others [29].

Iran’s laws and justice system require serious reforms to put an end to mass incarceration and ensure respect of prisoners’ rights, including their right to health. But Iran must take immediate preventive measures by providing prisoners nutritional food and clean water and ensuring their hygiene free of charge; ensuring competent medical professionals and experts’ access to prisons; and ensuring that all possible measures are taken to prevent contamination and the spread of the virus. Iran must also take immediate steps to reduce prison overcrowding and open space to isolate prisoners who are affected by the virus. Steps toward this end may include the release of prisoners who are held in pre-trial detention because they are unable to afford bail and debt prisoners. It can also, as suggested by a parliamentarian, grant temporary leave to those imprisoned on political and security charges [30].

It requires political will for Iran’s leaders to take such measures to protect prisoners and their communities. The international community can play a role in urging Iran to ensure the rights of prisoners to health and support them with the expertise and means to do, if necessary.

NOTES:

[1] Statement by the Ministry of Health Public Relations’ Office (https://www.irna.ir/news/83691964/%D8%AA%D9%84%D9%81%D8%A7%D8%AA-%DA%A9%D8%B1%D9%88%D9%86%D8%A7-%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D8%A7%DB%8C%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%A8%D9%87-%DB%B1%DB%B9-%D9%86%D9%81%D8%B1-%D8%B1%D8%B3%DB%8C%D8%AF)

[2] The research, which estimates the number of cases in Iran at 18,000, is not peer reviewed and is posted by medRxiv, which was founded by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), a not-for-profit research and educational institution, Yale University, and BMJ, a global healthcare knowledge provider.
https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.02.24.20027375v1

[3] New York Times, February 21, 2020 (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/21/world/asia/china-coronavirus-iran.html)

[4]
https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/2988

[5] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, March 6, 2018 (Advanced Copy) (https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/3354)

[6] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, January 28, 2020 (Advanced Copy) (
https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/3708/)

[7] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, January 28, 2020 (Advanced Copy): Paragraphs 60-61
[8] See video: “A Former Drug User Speaks” (
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8l2XUJuOrk)

[9] In October 2018, Majles representative Ali Bakhtiar stated the prison population had doubled in the last four months alone, while another deputy declared that the number of prisoners in the country was four times the prison capacity. (
https://bit.ly/2u0xpQD) Bahman Taherkhani, a member of Parliament’s Legal and Judicial Commission, stated that overcrowding in prisons had resulted in lack of adequate supervision contributing to the rise of clashes and the spread of drugs in prisons. (https://bit.ly/2VlC5jl).

[10] Mehr News, August 5 2019 (
https://www.mehrnews.com/news/4685750/)

[11] Iran Students News Agency, November 11 2019 (
https://www.isna.ir/news/98082113382/)

[12] ABC interview, November 26, 2019. See also Amnesty International report dated December 16, 2019:
https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/12/iran-thousands-arbitrarily-detained-and-at-risk-of-torture-in-chilling-post-protest-crackdown/

[13] ABC has collected reports on 6,225 persons arrested in connection with November protest activity, last updated January 24, 2019. Reports on 3,148 of these arrests are taken from official and semi-official sources. ABC has been able to collect names and details on 330 individuals taken from unofficial sources, including 39 women. 1,018 minors are reportedly among those arrested. The majority of these arrests were made in the Iranian months of Aban (October 23 – November 21) and Azar (November 22- December 21), though they have continued since. High bail in the cases of these arrested protesters, often beyond families’ means, is an impediment to their release: an ABC source reports that detainees at Sanandaj Central Prison have been released on an average bail of 200 million tomans (c. 13,000 USD), and in cases from Shiraz, lawyers informed ABC that bails of reportedly up to 500 million tomans (c. 32,000 USD) have been set in cases for minors arrested in protest crackdowns.

[14] On October 20, 2019, the Head of Iran Blood Money Organization announced the release of 3,318 such prisoners since March 21 2019, thanks to charity fundraising and state funds. According to him, the number of releases with the help of philanthropists in the previous year was 10,000 (
https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/441314/3-318-prisoners-of-involuntary-crimes-released). Per Iranian law, individuals can be imprisoned for failing to pay dowries, blood money, or injury-related compensation without otherwise having intentionally committed a criminal act.

[15] See Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Paragraph 60 (January 28, 2020)
https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/3708; and Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, paragraph 26 (August 6, 2010) https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N10/477/91/PDF/N1047791.pdf?OpenElement

[16] ‘An overcrowded prison entails cramped and unhygienic accommodation; a constant lack of privacy (even when performing such basic tasks as using a sanitary facility); reduced out-of-cell activities [;] overburdened health-care services; increased tension and . . . violence between prisoners and between prisoners and staff’. See Penal Reform International on human rights bodies and prison overcrowding and guidelines: https://www.penalreform.org/blog/growing-concern-for-prison-overcrowding-among-human-rights/

[17] https://www.penalreform.org/resource/standard-minimum-rules-treatment-prisoners-smr/; https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/911/standard-minimum-rules-for-the-treatment-of-prisoners

[18] IranWire, February 25, 2020  (https://iranwire.com/en/features/6741). One Karaj prisoner reports abrupt and unexplained transfers, while a former prison staffer reports that prison’s political prisoner ward, which is in proximity to the medical facility, has been evacuated, possibly to serve as a quarantine for suspected cases. The wife of imprisoned Iranian-British dual national Anousheh Ashouri reports he has told her COVID-19 is present in Evin Prison’s Ward 4 where he is being held. IranWire has also received reports that a prisoner named Mustafa Ashkbus, 54 years of age, died of COVID-19 at Fashofuyeh Prison.

[19]HRANA, February 25, 2020 (
https://www.hra-news.org/2020/hranews/a-23972/)

[20] ILNA, February 26, 2020 (
https://cutt.ly/zr8vQov)

[21] See Citizen Journalist Telegram Channel @VahidOnline

[22]
https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/3708/

[23] Close to 200 acts carry the death penalty (https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/3591;https://www.amnestyusa.org/files/flawed_reforms_-_irans_new_code_of_criminal_procedure.pdfhttps://www.hrw.org/report/2012/08/28/codifying-repression/assessment-irans-new-penal-code)

[24]
https://www.isna.ir/news/97022111444

[25] Eight of the signatories of an open letter calling for the resignation of Ayatollah Khamenei were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 6 to 26 years for “establishing an unlawful group and propaganda against the state”. They are still awaiting their sentence for the charge of “insulting the Supreme Leader and the Founder of the Islamic Republic;” Khosro Sadeghi Borujeni, a sociologist was sentenced to 8 years imprisonment for the charge of “ assembly and collusion with an intention to commit crime against the national security”,“propaganda against the state”, and for “insulting the founder of the Islamic Republic.” Mr. Borujeni has written several articles on Iran’s political economy; Gita Hor, who participated in the November 2019 protest was sentenced to six years imprisonment for “assembly and collusion against the national security” and “propaganda against the state”. https://www.en-hrana.org/category/prisoners; see also https://www.amnesty.org/en/get-involved/take-action/free-detained-protesters-iran/; https://www.npr.org/2020/01/14/796260687/iran-makes-arrests-over-accidental-downing-of-ukrainian-airliner

[26] Narges Mohammadi was sentenced to 16 years in prison  on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security”, and “propaganda against the state” for her activities on behalf of LEGAM, a grassroots organization calling for the abolition of the death penalty (https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/2989)

[27] See e.g. the cases of Esmail Bakhshi and Sepideh Gholian
https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/3568

[28] https://iranwire.com/en/features/6720

[29] Agence France Presse, February 26, 2020 (https://news.yahoo.com/cyberpolice-virus-hit-iran-arrest-24-over-covid-142622257.html) Hassan Nowruzi, head of the Majles Legal and Judicial Affairs Committee, has warned of punishments of one- to three-year prison sentences and flogging for “publishing false news” regarding the virus (https://www.borna.news/fa/tiny/news-969947)

[30] Twitter account of parliamentarian Mahmoud Sadeghi, February 25, 2020 (
https://twitter.com/mah_sadeghi/status/1232290661174587392)