It was recently reported that a number of political prisoners in Iran had gone on hunger strike in order to protest their continued, arbitrary detention during a coronavirus epidemic that has potentially infected a million Iranians since the start of the year. The hunger strikes represent the continuation of activist pressure that began last month with letters from the families of various political prisoners, urging the judiciary to grant them furlough in order to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Over the past two weeks or so, Tehran has tried to deflect those calls to action, first by announcing a plan to release more than 50,000 prisoners on a temporary basis, and later by claiming that they had actually released 85,000. Neither of these claims can be independently verified, though. And to the extent that the existing prison population has managed to leak details of their hunger strike, they have strongly disputed the notion that authorities are safeguarding the prison population.
Quite to the contrary, the inmates’ disclosures suggest that measures have been taken to leave certain types of prisoners particularly vulnerable. This is made more alarming by prior reporting on the conditions of many of Iran’s notorious prisons. These are notorious for poor sanitation, low-quality food, limited access to water, and a lack of ventilation. All in all, these conditions are powerful contributors to the spread of disease, and they also exacerbate preexisting health conditions among prisoners.
Ailing prisoners, in turn, are routinely subject to the denial of access to medical treatment. This is widely recognized as a deliberate tactic for putting additional pressure on prisoners, especially political prisoners. It is not very uncommon for that tactic to result in permanent disability or even death. Such deaths are, of course, not included in the official toll of prisoner executions, although they can easily be understood as a sort of unofficial approach to capital punishment.
The coronavirus epidemic has arguably provided regime authorities with an opportunity to ramp up this practice, thereby killing off political prisoners or at least severely impairing their health, all without boosting the rate of execution in a country that is routinely the most prolific abuser of the death penalty, on a per-capita basis.
This is exactly how the situation appears to be viewed by political prisoners who are currently on a hunger strike. In a recent open letter, several of them explained that they had seen fellow inmates fall ill and die. Others were reportedly taken to hospital and never seen again. “They can eliminate whoever they choose, under the guise that the prisoner has contracted coronavirus,” said one prisoner who shared his experiences with, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). “The prisoner is taken away without anyone knowing about his whereabouts.”
Due to inhuman conditions in the regime’s jails in #Iran, prisoners and particularly the political prisoners must be released immediately, unconditionally and without asking for bail, otherwise all prisoners would die of the #Coronavirus.
— Maryam Rajavi (@Maryam_Rajavi) March 11, 2020
These allegations are grounds for the most serious human rights concern. History has shown just how severe the Iranian regime’s crimes against humanity can become when it is permitted to deal with prisoners as it sees fit. In 1988, the regime’s founder Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa declaring that opponents of the clerical regime were enemies of God. This set the stage for the mass execution of political prisoners, primarily targeting members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK).
During a period of several months, an estimated 30,000 political prisoners were put to death following political interrogations that lasted as little as one minute. In most cases, these “trials” were mere formalities. Even when prisoners had already served out their legal sentences, it was taken for granted that they were guilty of “enmity against God” simply by virtue of having spoken out against the theocracy in the past.
The 1988 massacre is analogues to the passive execution of today’s political prisoners, insofar as there is a simple indicator of “guilt” for those prisoners. As the hunger strikers noted, many of those who have been left particularly vulnerable were originally detained on the basis of their participation in a nationwide uprising against the regime.
Last November, people flooded the streets of approximately 200 Iranian cities and towns, in response to the government’s announcement of a sharp increase in the price of gasoline. Although the spark of protest was economic anxiety, the message almost immediately shifted to calling for regime change. Reclaiming slogans that had been popularized in a prior uprising – notably attributed to the MEK – the demonstrators chanted “death to the dictator” and condemned both the so-called “hardline” and “reformist” factions of the regime.
The regime’s response was brutal. Firing live ammunition into densely packed crowds, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) led the way in killing approximately 1,500 peaceful activists. Obviously not satisfied with this, the authorities proceeded to arrest many of those who presented themselves at hospitals after being wounded in the onslaught. No doubt these people now comprise a significant portion of those who have been left in their cells, perhaps without having received any treatment for their wounds, so they can be infected by a potentially deadly virus.
According to official statements from the Iranian regime, COVID-19 has killed over 1,000 people since the outbreak was first acknowledged last month. But Iranian medical professionals and opposition activists have made it abundantly clear that the official figures are drastic underestimates. This conclusion is firmly supported by the fact that Tehran, despite claiming to have released tens of thousands of prisoners, has not even acknowledged the reality of any outbreak within the harsh conditions of Iranian prisons.
The NCRI has lately determined that the actual coronavirus death toll is over 7,000. This alone underscores the severity of the humanitarian crisis. Iranian regime by leaving prisoners deliberately exposed to the raging epidemic, then the broader crisis barely masks a serious crime against humanity.
Iran: #Coronavirus Death Toll Exceeds 7,000 in 199 Cities
On eve of the Iranian New Year, Mrs. Rajavi offers prayers for a speedy recovery of patients, her condolences to victims’ families #COVID19
— NCRI-FAC (@iran_policy) March 19, 2020
United Nations human rights monitors must, therefore, insist upon immediate access to Iranian prison facilities, in order to confirm that Iran has followed through on the promised furlough arrangements. Meanwhile, every civilized nation should exert diplomatic pressure on the Iranian regime to go beyond those initial commitments, to address the demands of hunger-striking political prisoners, and to carry out prison reforms that go far beyond the conditions of this particular crisis.