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Iran Regime’s Secrecy Over COVID-19 Death Toll Is Part of a Much Larger Trend

Iran Regime’s Secrecy Over COVID-19 Death Toll Is Part of a Much Larger Trend
Coronavirus outbreak in Iran-April 2020

The number of coronavirus-related deaths in Iran has now exceeded 36,000. But relatively few global policymakers are aware of this fact. The Iranian regime has been downplaying the impact of its outbreak since the very beginning, and even some foreign countries have remained ignorant of the extent to which that regime mismanaged the crisis. 

There’s far less of this ignorance to be found among the Iranian people. Although much of the population is being effectively kept in the dark regarding the precise death toll and infection rates, it is surely very difficult to take the regime’s official narrative seriously while Covid-19 is killing people in great numbers, out in the open. 

Iranian doctors and nurses, as well as standing on the front lines of the fight against this disease, have been making valiant efforts to expose the true extent to which the outbreak has ravaged their country. Some have spoken to foreign news outlets about an overwhelmed healthcare system and a routine of pronouncing dozens of patients dead in a single hospital on a single day. Others have attempted to directly address the Iranian people via social media, while some have even reached out to intelligence networks associated with the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI or MEK). 

In each case, these medical professionals are taking on tremendous personal risk. Soon after Iran’s coronavirus was formally acknowledged, the regime’s officials made it clear that “rumor mongering” on the topic would be punished with flogging and up to three years in prison. A number of people, including doctors, have since been arrested for sharing true information, much of it backed up by photographs and other documentary evidence. 

In the specific case of communication with the MEK, the prospective penalty is and always has been death. Nevertheless, the MEK has obtained such a wealth of information over the past two months that it has become an authoritative source of figures that undermine the regime’s official announcements regarding coronavirus fatalities and the total number of cases. 

It is thanks to the MEK that a growing number of people throughout the world are aware of Iran’s coronavirus death toll having exceeded 36,000. Not only that, but the MEK and the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) have also provided detailed reports about the ways in which these higher estimates have been covered up by the regime. 

Generally speaking, the relevant deaths are being recorded. But they are being labeled with erroneous causes of death such as cardiac arrest, influenza, and unspecified pulmonary ailments. Then, to forestall any further inquiries into whether the deceased had been positive for Covid-19, authorities are facilitating the speedy burial of many corpses. This happens over the objection of families of victims and without notifying them. 

Aspects of this situation are disturbingly familiar to those who are familiar with the Iranian regime’s history of human rights abuses. In recent years, there have been a number of prominent examples of activists and political prisoners being abruptly interred as a way of preserving the certainly false explanations that had been given for their deaths.  

Looking farther back into the history of the regime, there are much more dramatic examples of this type of secrecy. In the summer of 1988, tribunals in numerous Iranian prisons held inquiries into the political affiliations of their detainees. Those who persisted on their beliefs in supporting the MEK and denouncing the mullahs’ regime were executed. It is estimated that over 30,000 political prisoners were put to death in a matter of months, most of them members and supporters of the MEK. But the exact number may never be known, because so many of the victims were buried in secret mass graves. 

The locations of some of these graves have been confirmed over the past 30-plus years. But human rights organizations like Amnesty International have confirmed that the regime has extended its cover-up by systematically destroying and building upon some of these sites. The ongoing scandal effectively confirms that regime’s domestic policies have not changed since the time of the 1988 massacre.  

Some Iranian political prisoners even allege that such disappearances have become much more frequent in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. In a letter announcing a coordinated hunger strike last month, detainees at Greater Tehran Penitentiary described fellow prisoners being taken away under the pretense of coronavirus-related transfers, but with no known destination or furlough arrangements. These incidents have contributed to concerns about accelerated torture practices and informal executions. 

This certainly would not be against type for theocratic dictatorship. It is not at all difficult to imagine that after covering up the deliberate killing of over 30,000 of the political prisoners, the regime would apply those same tactics of disinformation to covering up natural deaths that it merely declined to prevent. And it is no more difficult to imagine that there would be substantial overlap among the regime’s premeditated killings and the deaths caused by neglect. 

As a matter of fact, that overlap has always been evident. One of the most common forms of extrajudicial punishment in Iran is the denial of access to medical treatment. Even under the best of conditions, this has resulted in untold numbers of deaths and permanent afflictions. 

Most importantly, the regime needs oppression and human rights violation to continue its rule. Therefore, the downfall of this regime will end the human rights violations.