Iranian regime now claims to have released 100,000 prisoners amid the coronavirus pandemic. But nothing that the theocratic regime says about the current situation should be taken at face value.
The mullahs have been lying about the outbreak and its consequences since the moment they acknowledged that Covid-19 cases had been recorded inside Iran. And there is absolutely no reason to suppose that Tehran’s behavior has changed for the better as the crisis has unfolded.
Releasing prisoners on such a massive scale would not be consistent with the mentality that has allowed Iran’s regime to retain its status as the world’s foremost abuser of the death penalty for so many years. But claiming to have release them is absolutely consistent with the regime’s habit of taking whatever measures are expedient at any given moment to maintain its hold on power.
Since coronavirus began spiraling out of control across Iran, the plight of political prisoners and non-violent offenders has become a source of extraordinary pressure from Iran’s domestic activist community, from the families of its many tens of thousands of prisoners, and from international human rights groups like Amnesty International. Meanwhile, the regime is certainly extra-sensitive to all such pressure at this time, when a mounting coronavirus death toll threatens to rekindle unrest just months after it was brought to heel by repressive authorities.
Contrary to the regime’s claim of releasing the prisoners, on March 31, 2020, the Iranian Judiciary handed down a 16-year sentence and 2-year exile to Hashem Khastar, the representative of the Iranian teachers Association in Khorassan Razavi province. Other political activists received long prison terms for calling for Khamenei’s resignation and expressing their political views.
#Iran: Teacher Condemned to 16 years in Prison for Asking Khamenei to Step Down
Hashem Khastar, received a final verdict condemning him to 16 years in prison and a further two-year exile term for his political activities. #IranProtests #HumanRights https://t.co/Vi8yTqdk5x
— NCRI-FAC (@iran_policy) March 31, 2020
In recent years, the prospect of regime change in Tehran has ceased to have the appearance of distant dream. At the beginning of 2018, Iran was rocked by a nationwide uprising that gave rise to popular slogans calling for a wholesale change of government. In November 2019, these slogans overtook the entire country once again, when a new sequence of protests was sparked by the government’s decision to hike gasoline prices at a time of severe economic hardship for ordinary Iranians.
Smaller-scale protests have been recorded throughout this period and even in the immediate run-up to the coronavirus outbreak. Some of them, including last January’s protest over the Revolutionary Guards’ downing of a Ukrainian airliner and the subsequent cover-up, have spanned several provinces at a time. Others have emerged in the shadow of Iran’s medieval prisons, with activists demanding the release of their compatriots and highlighting the vicious treatment that is typically meted out to political prisoners.
Any one of these protests could be the inspiration for the next nationwide movement in support of regime change. But Tehran has developed sophisticated techniques for holding such movements at bay. Brutal repression operates hand-in-hand with public disinformation. And the latter might entail outright denial of the regime’s wrongdoing, or a promise of change that the regime promptly reneges on.
Such false promises represent one way of pushing back against activism when it emerges inside of Iranian jails. Hunger strikes are a remarkably popular and often effective means of securing public support in Iran. Knowing this, the regime has been known to escalate its already vigorous repression of political prisoners when they embark on hunger strikes. And when this doesn’t work, they sometimes resort to simply lying about their intention to address an inmate’s concerns or re-examine his case.
This sort of deception might work to interfere with the sympathies that tend to grow out of a lengthy hunger strike. But the regime’s short-term solution creates long-term problems as Iranian prisoners and civilians both become more and more skeptical of the regime’s public responses to protest. The inevitable result is even more protest, both inside of jails and out, some of which takes the form of the sort of unrest that has challenged the regime in its entirety over the past two years.
Questionable claims about prisoner furloughs follow much the same pattern, but on a much grander scale. And given the seriousness of the lie, there may be an even narrower window for the next outpouring of activism. There have already been signs of this over the past few weeks, and they have come not in the form of standard protests or solitary hunger strikes, but in the form large-scale riots and prison breaks among a population of inmates that has supposedly been furloughed en masse.
Incidents have been reported in Greater Tehran Penitentiary, Parsilon Prison in Khorramabad, Adel Abad Prison in Shiraz, and Saqqez Prison in Kurdistan, among others. At the same time, open letters from political prisoners have alleged ongoing torture while disputing the regime’s claims of mass furlough and speculating that the coronavirus epidemic has actually provided authorities with an opportunity to freely transfer prisoners and enforce disappearances without facing the same scrutiny they would under other circumstances.
In view of the regime’s long pattern of lying in order to prolong its own survival, the international community should do everything in its power to examine the truth of the Iranian judiciary’s latest claims. And it should do so in full awareness that if the country’s jails are proven to still be full of political prisoners, it may spur the next step toward the Iranian people’s overthrow of the theocratic dictatorship.