COVID-19 Fear in Iran’s Prisons: Iran Must Do More to Protect Prisoners

Posted on: September 3rd, 2020

HRANA – Nearly half a year has passed since Iranian officials acknowledged the grave threat posed by the novel coronavirus to the country’s prison population. In late February 2020, high-ranking officials in the prison and judicial systems announced new protocols to head off a health catastrophe in the country’s chronically overcrowded and underfunded penal system, including furloughs for certain classes of prisoners, a reduction in intake of new prisoners, daily rounds of disinfection, hygiene training for prisoners and prison staff, distribution of hygienic supplies, and the formation of full-time task forces to monitor prisoners’ health.

In April of 2020, Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran (ABC) released a report, COVID-19, Fear in Iran’s Prisons, detailing the scope of a COVID-19 crisis that was spreading across multiple prisons despite administrative measures taken to prevent it — including the release of thousands of prisoners — as well as the unrest sparked in late March by heightening fears of the virus and the subsequent violent crackdown by security forces.

In its analysis of key risk factors such as overcrowding, which makes social distancing next to impossible, the report identified shortcomings and inconsistencies in the implementation of Judiciary directives. It pointed to persistent overcrowding in some prisons; an unjustifiable insufficiency of fundamental necessities, such as cost-free cleaning products and hot water to ensure prisoners’ personal hygiene and to the glaring absence of systematic disinfection procedures in prison wards and common areas. In view of addressing these problems, the report also set forth recommendations that were in line with best practices formulated by international health and human rights authorities.

In conjunction with the Human Rights Activist News Agency (HRANA), ABC conducted a follow-up investigation into the evolution of these problems since April. The findings of this report indicate that the hygienic conditions in Iranian prisons, rather than improving, have significantly deteriorated. The research sheds light on Iranian officials’ failure to adequately decrowd prisons and implement prevention protocols, which led to a proliferation of COVID-19 cases in several prisons. Disinfections by prison officials have stopped across several investigated prisons, apparently due to a lack of budget. Some prisons were found to have reduced supplies of free food, basic hygiene products, and personal protective equipment to prisoners, and the steep price markups in prison shops render these items inaccessible to less-affluent prisoners, who can then not afford to ensure their own protection.

Quarantine procedures were shown in many cases to be self-defeating, due in part to a constant flow of newcomers and continued commingling in common areas such as bathrooms, hallways, and kitchens (ex: Zanjan, Greater Tehran). Initial efforts across several prisons to reduce the prison population in March and April seem to have been abandoned by May, coinciding with the return of prisoners who had initially been sent on furlough. Avoidable arrests and detentions for petty crimes and for crimes not recognized under international law, including for social media posts, religious activities and drug use, have countervailed releases and pardons that were issued in an attempt to keep inmate numbers low. These problems are compounded by a systematic and long-standing tradition of opaque governance and heavy-handed securitization. Consequently, Iran remains secretive about COVID-19 cases within prisons and the number of prisoners who were hospitalized or died, generating anxiety among incarcerated people and preventing an actionable assessment of the problem.

The human cost of this neglect continues to mount: confirmed or suspected cases of the novel coronavirus — some resulting in death — are cropping up in increasing numbers across the country, including Mashhad Central Prison (where three halls, with a cumulative capacity of around 600 people, have been designated as holding spaces for both confirmed and suspected cases), Evin (where at least eight people in the political prisoners’ ward have recently tested positive), Orumieh (where medical staff went on strike to protest a lack of preventative measures after prison personnel, including one doctor, fell ill and eight prisoners were transferred to the hospital with high fever and seizures), Greater Tehran (where two men exhibiting severe symptoms were held in a prayer room of Building 5 when the overwhelmed prison clinic couldn’t accommodate them, and a ward of Building 5 was placed under quarantine after an outbreak caused by the introduction of sick newcomers into a previously health ward), and Shahr-e Rey women’s penitentiary (known also as Qarchak, where scores of prisoners who tested positive have languished without much medical care).

Iranian officials have sung the praises of their coronavirus response in prisons, which they tout as exemplary for the region, if not for the world, yet the credibility of their claims is undermined by their blatant under-reporting of cases, their denial of prison access to independent human rights observers, and the persecution of citizens who disseminate accurate information about the virus. Documents recently leaked to Amnesty International indicate that Iran’s Ministry of Health has repeatedly ignored urgent appeals from the Prisons Organization to remedy the widespread shortages of the protective equipment, disinfectant products, and medical supplies needed to fight the pandemic.

Sanctions have indeed proven crippling to the economy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and its leaders are facing hard choices in terms of resource allocation. But this adversity cannot account for the continued shortages of certain vital products such as soap, which has been produced in Iran for close to a century. Ordinary citizens, Iranian officials, hospital staff, and sources with knowledge of medical supply chains have told ABC and HRANA that domestically produced masks and disinfectants, hard to come by at the beginning of the outbreak, are now available in adequate supply.

The dire state of Iran’s prisons is a long-standing systemic problem that stems from policy choices of Iran’s leaders. Responsibility for the failures highlighted in this report rests with the Judiciary, parliamentarians, and successive governments who have, for four decades, failed to reform a draconian criminal code — as repeatedly recommended by experts and prison officials — or resource the carceral system while continuing to overload it with hundreds of thousands more people each year. In normal times, prisoners are more vulnerable to disease than the general population; in a time of pandemic, when an increase in COVID-19 infections and deaths have been reported in several prisons, it is reckless to disregard prisoner’s rights to health and life, rights which Iran is obligate under international law. If Iranian prisons become hotspots for COVID-19, thousands of prisoners will get infected, constituting a real threat for the prison population and the communities outside prison walls.

Iran has ratified several UN Conventions, which bar it from arresting individuals for crimes not recognized under international law and obligate it to protect the health and life of individuals deprived of liberty. The International community must hold Iran accountable for violating prisoners’ human rights, the lack of administrative transparency, and denying access to independent human rights monitors. It is imperative to distinguish Iran’s systemic failures of resource allocation from current international tensions and the hardships they have placed on trade. Iran does have the resources it needs to improve prison conditions and save lives, but decision makers have simply chosen to allocate precious resources to non-essential causes instead, such as the rebuilding of golden shrines in Iraq or the funding of religious studies for foreign students. Releasing prisoners who do not belong in jail is also a budget-neutral measure that, if implemented, would reduce the strain on prison resources while helping prisons’ staff who are themselves at risk and under tremendous pressure in the fight against the pandemic.

Iran must immediately allocate the resources prison officials have repeatedly asked for. It must allow implementation of the preventive measures recommended by the World Health Organization, as well as the Judiciary’s own directives, including but not limited to:

  • daily and thorough disinfection of prison facilities,
  • ensuring that essential personal hygiene items such as soap and sanitizer are made available at no cost and in sufficient quantities to all prisoners,
  • systematic testing and monitoring of prisoners,
  • provision of proper medical care inside and outside prisons to prisoners who are infected
  • allowing independent monitoring and health assessments by human rights groups and civil society.

It is imperative to note that the measures above will fail to curb the spread of the pandemic if they are not paired with a significant reduction in the number of incarcerated people to enable prisoners to respect sufficient social distance and avoid mass infections. The vital decision to release prisoners –including prisoners of conscience and human rights defenders, individuals accused of petty crimes, and those guilty of crimes not recognized under international law– is in the hands of Iranian leaders alone. They must not allow lifesaving measures to be hindered by administrative and political obstacles.

To read the full report, please download the file:

PDF document (in English)

The Greater Tehran Penitentiary; The Corona Virus Crisis, And The Deprivation of Hundreds Of Prisoners Of Drinking Water

Posted on: June 27th, 2020

HRANA News Agency: The water supply has been cut off at the Greater Tehran Penitentiary’s Wing 5 since last night, and hundreds of prisoners have been deprived of access to drinking water. Furthermore, 52 prisoners at the Greater Tehran Penitentiary’s Wing 1 have fallen ill with COVID-19. Additionally, a prisoner at the Prison’s Wing 5, Hall 4, has been vomiting blood and showing symptoms similar to those of the Corona virus. The return of prisoners from leave [into the general prison population] without first being quarantined is among the most significant reasons for the spread of the Corona virus in the country’s prisons, including the Greater Tehran Penitentiary.

According to a report by HRANA News Agency, the news arm of the Human Rights Activists in Iran, the water supply has been cut off at the Greater Tehran Penitentiary’s Wing 5 since last night, and hundreds of prisoners have been deprived of access to drinking water.

The cutting off of hot water at the Greater Tehran Penitentiary’s Wing 5, Ward 2, Hall 1, since nearly two weeks ago, has caused problems in cleaning and maintaining hygiene at the Hall. Furthermore, since 11 o’clock last night, the water supply has been cut off at the Greater Tehran Penitentiary’s Wing 5, and prisoners have been deprived of access to drinking water there. The Hall’s emergency supply of water was also depleted on the morning of June 19, and prison authorities have locked the Halls’ doors at this Wing in order to prevent prisoners from protesting.

A source close to the family of a prisoner incarcerated at the Penitentiary stated to HRANA: “Initially, the cutting off of hot water created problems for prisoners, and especially affected older individuals, who have subsequently caught colds or pneumonia due to bathing with that same [cold] water. Additionally, the drinking water supply has been depleted in Wing 5 and the conditions have gotten much worse than before for prisoners.”

Water conditions have never been that good in this Prison [to begin with]. The water supply for bathing is shut off for sometimes 17 to 18 hours a day. Based on the experience of past years, it seems that these shut-offs will become even more intense gradually and as it gets warmer. In the past week, two emergency water faucets have been installed for handwashing. Showers can only be used 4 to 6 hours a day, as a result of which, many prisoners do not get a chance to use the showers for between 2 to 5 months. Prisoners can only use hot water after 12 midnight. Water pressure is also not sufficient, and it is not possible to supply the Prison with adequate amounts of hot water due to persistent problems between the Prison authorities and the Shahriar region Municipality. As the weather has gotten warmer since last week, some days the Prison’s water supply is available for only 2 hours and the water is completely shut off most of the time.

Furthermore, the number of Prisoners infected with the Corona virus at the Greater Tehran Penitentiary is on the rise. 52 prisoners at the Greater Tehran Penitentiary’s Wing 1 have fallen ill with COVID-19. Additionally, a prisoner at the Prison’s Wing 5, Hall 4, has been vomiting blood and showing symptoms similar to those of the Corona virus.

The overcrowding in the Penitentiary has resulted in the spread of contagious illnesses like COVID-19.

The return of prisoners from leave without spending time in quarantine is among the most significant reasons for the spread of the Corona virus in prisons all across the country, and especially in the Greater Tehran Penitentiary.

HRANA had previously addressed the health and hygiene conditions at this Prison in a comprehensive report. There is an infirmary in each wing of the Greater Tehran Penitentiary, but the prisoners are deprived of access to a doctor or a nurse most of the day, and only a single prisoner (with or without any specialty) has been selected as the person in charge of the infirmary. Every few days, three prisoners are chosen from among individuals in a twenty-person cell to go to the infirmary, and even these people, [as few in numbers as they are], get minimal examination by the doctor or the nurse and are simply given a pill by the person in charge of the infirmary before they are taken back to the ward.

Prisoners suffering from illnesses such as HIV and Hepatitis are kept in a separate cell in Wards 1 and 2 of Wing 2, without being given any special privileges or facilities, especially during the spread of the Corona virus, and they use the same toilets and showers as the rest of the prison population. This can put these individuals’ lives at greater risk compared to other prisoners.

Domestic violence increased during coronavirus quarantines and stay-at-home orders

Posted on: April 5th, 2020

Mahmoud Aligoo, the head of the department of social harms of the State Welfare Organization reported an increase in the number of domestic violence and child abuse by assessing the number of calls made to the national director of Iran’s social emergency hotline. On April 1, 2020, Behzad Vahidnia, the head of counseling and psychology of the State Welfare Organization of Iran reported that the number of calls related to family conflicts during the quarantine times after coronavirus outbreak has been tripled.

Increasing awareness of families regarding how to treat women and girls especially in small cities and rural areas, teaching life skills from childhood, before marriage, after marriage, and before a child is born, researching on the methods to prevent domestic violence, and finally, revising the laws according to the current situations are some of the solutions to overcome violence against women.

Mr. Aligoo also pointed out that the increase in the number of child abuse and domestic violence during this time is because the Iranian middle-class families have been quarantining more seriously which resulted in heightened risk for domestic violence. Vahidinia added that approximately 60% of calls were related to family conflicts. Moreover, unemployment and financial hardship caused by coronavirus outbreak are important factors to the increased domestic violence. “if there are conflicts and mental conflicts, it is because of the poor economic situation in the society. People have to stay home because of the quarantine and thus, they are affected by the financial hardships, they are more in face-to-face contact with each other, there is a higher chance of quarrels, negligence, and emotional destructions and therefore, these factors will contribute in increasing domestic violence. Specifically, domestic violence against the elderly is a very important category of domestic violence” says Vahidinia.

Increase in violence against children

According to Shahrvand News Agency’s report quoting some of the children’s rights activists, there has been an increase in physical and verbal conflicts with children staying at home. Yasaman Dadvar who is responsible for the Sedaye Yar, the first hotline that offers counsel to children and teenagers, says that “quarantine has caused trouble for the families who were not ready for it. Small income and not having enough savings or the opportunity to work remotely has caused tensions in the families. To overcome such tensions, parents and children would need a set of skills but most of the families lack such skills. And this can lead to increased violence against children.”

In February 2019, Habibollah Masoudi Farbod, deputy of social affairs of the State’s Welfare Organization announced that during the year before, there were a million calls made to the national director of Iran’s social emergency hotline from which about 11 thousand calls were related to child abuse and about 10 thousand were related to violence against women.

According to the report compiled by HRANA in 2019, there were 1290 cases of child abuse, 31 cases of rape and sexual assault of children, 10 cases of children being murdered and 31 cases of child suicides.

Coronavirus outbreak in Iranian prisons

Posted on: March 4th, 2020

On February 29, 2020, Ebrahim Raisi, the Chief Justice of Iran, issued a circular laying out policies to prevent the spread of Coronavirus in prisons.  This order mandates giving 15 -30 days furlough to prisoners with sentences less than five years. Another part of this order is about reducing entries into prisons, temporary releases, and public activities in prisons. In addition, this order mandates to increase alternative sentences and suspended prison terms instead of imprisonments.

Although the Chief Justice of Iran announced that the prisoners with less than five years prison term will be granted furlough, the prison authorities are not cooperative with political prisoners and prisoners of conscience to implement this regulation. As an example, Esmaeil Abdi and Negin Ghadamian were sentenced to five years imprisonment and after spending four and three years in prison respectively, they were not granted any furlough. Nazanin Zaghari’s husband reported that she is suspected to have Coronavirus. She is serving the 4th year of her five-year imprisonment sentence. Reportedly, three women were diagnosed with Coronavirus in Evin Prison.

The number of prisoners suspected of having coronavirus is increasing. Several prisoners suspected of having coronavirus were identified in Urmia, Khorramabad, Gorgan, Sanandaj, Qom, and other prisons.

 

A letter from political prisoner’s families

With the current spread of Coronavirus in prisons in Iran, some of the families of the political and security prisoners have written a letter to the judicial authorities on February 26, 2020, requesting furlough for prisoners until this crisis (Coronavirus) is over in the prisons. Considering the closed environment of the prison, malnutrition of the prisoners, shortage of medical care and facilities, high density of prisoners, and the occurrence of some cases suspected to be related to coronavirus has raised concerns of the families of prisoners.

The families of the following prisoners have signed this letter:

Mahmoud Beheshti Langeroudi, Esmaeil Abdi, Mohammad Habibi, Narges Mohammadi, Amir Salar Davoudi, Farhad Meisami, Roeen Otoufat, Jafar Azimzadeh, Shahnaz Akmali, Majid Azarpey, Atena Daemi, Sam Rajabi, Morad Tahbaz, Niloufar Bayani, Abdolreza Kouhpaieh, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Houman Jokar, Taher Ghadirian, Neda Naji, Mehrdad Mohammadnejad, Mohammad Abolhasani, Peyman Koushkbaghi, Aras Amiri, Jafar Fazel, and Alireza Golipour.

In some of the prisons, such as Khorramabad or Sanandaj Prisons, the prisoners asked the authorities to provide them with medical and hygiene necessities and to quarantine the prisoners who are suspected to be infected and have threatened that if this negligence is continuous, they will go on hunger strike. Other prisons such as Karaj, Tabriz, Evin and many other prisons across the country are also demanding similar precautions.

 

A death in Greater Tehran Central Penitentiary

It should be noted that on the same day, a prisoner of Greater Tehran Central Penitentiary who had symptoms similar to that of Coronavirus passed away after the prison authorities delayed in transferring him to the hospital to receive proper medical care. His name was Hamid Reza and he was 44 years old. He was convicted of a financial felony who was serving his sentence in Greater Tehran Central Penitentiary. He was initially diagnosed with symptoms of flu but after a few days, he started to cough and eventually passed away in the prion.

In addition, 60 prisoners of Greater Tehran Central Penitentiary who were working in the kitchen or service sector, were transferred to Rajai Shahr Prison. Moreover, 7 other prisoners in section 5 ward 2 have Coronavirus symptoms; they were kept in the medical ward without receiving medical care and were not transferred to the hospital.

 

Evin Prison and the violation of the Prisoners Classification Regulation

Amir Hossein Moradi, Saeed Tamjidi, Mohammad Rajabi, Milad Arsanjani, Jamil Ghahremani, and 15 other arrestees of the last November’s protests who were kept in Greater Tehran Central Penitentiary, were moved from their cell after an inmate was diagnosed with Coronavirus in their cell. Amir Hossein Moradi returned to prison on February 29, 2020, after spending a week in the hospital for another disease. He returned to his cell but after an hour he was transferred to the medical ward for his positive test results of Coronavirus. Although they were told that they will be transferred to Yaft Abad Hospital, they were transferred to ward 1 of this prison, which belongs to the prisoners who committed violent crimes. In June 2019, Alireza Shir Mohammadi, a political prisoner, was fatally stabbed in this ward by two other inmates of this ward who were charged with a drug felony. After this incident, the prison authorities moved other political prisoners from this ward to avoid future incidents. This is against prisoners’ segregation rule. According to a close source “section, 1 of the Greater Tehran Central Penitentiary has 10 wards and one suite which had been used as an exile to punish the prisoners who get in the fight or carry drugs. Since 2018, the political prisoners have been transferred to this suite. This suite has limited facilities and does not even have access to prison commissaries. Their door should be locked all the time however, in the case of Mr. Shir Mohammadi, the warden intentionally did not lock the door which was illegal.

Alireza Shir Mohammadi, a 21-year-old political prisoner at the Greater Tehran Central Penitentiary was murdered in prison on June 10, 2019. He was attacked by two other prisoners, who were later convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The prisoner in question was stabbed in the neck and stomach and died before arriving at the hospital. Shir Mohammad Ali was arrested on July 14, 2018, and was sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of “blasphemy”, “insulting the former and current Supreme Leaders”, and “propaganda against the state”.  He was detained in a solitary confinement cell for 36 days after being arrested. His bail was set at 80 million Tomans but the Revolutionary Court illegally rejected his release on bail. Throughout his prosecution process, he did not have access to an attorney because of his financial conditions. He was waiting for the decision of the appeal’s court when he was murdered. He protested his detention along with non-political prisoners and went on a hunger strike on March 14, 2019, which ended on April 16 after prison authorities accepted his demands. He also wrote open letters criticizing the “unsafe” and “inhumane” conditions of Greater Tehran’s Penitentiary Prison. He wrote an open letter five days into his hunger strike on March 18, 2019. In this letter, he explained the awful condition he was experiencing in prison. In addition, he claimed that he was denied regular social rights that any prisoner is entitled to have. However, his main request, reflected in this letter, was to be transferred to another prison (Evin prison). No judicial authorities or prison officials reacted to his open letter. 

A prisoner of ward 4 of Evin Prison was transferred to an unknown place for his positive test results of Coronavirus. He kept with several other prisoners and political prisoners of this ward who are on hunger strike and are more vulnerable to this disease.

 

Khorramabad and Ghezel Hesar Prisons

On March 1, 2020, the prisoners of Khorramabad Prison have started a sit-in to protest not being sent to furlough although Coronavirus has spread in this prison. There is a shortage of access to medical care and hygiene products for the diagnosis and treatment of Coronavirus. Several prisoners who have symptoms of this disease did not receive any treatment and were kept with other prisoners. Several prisoners who went on furlough were returned to prison. A close source to a family of a prisoner in this prison told HRANA that a sick inmate with severe coughs received neither medical care nor disinfecting substances and hygiene products such as alcohol, mask, and gloves.

Two prisoners of Qezelhesar Prison, Basat Ali Khazaei, and Gholamhossein Abolfavaei were moved to the quarantine section in the health ward due to having positive test results of Coronavirus. They were charged with drug felony and kept in a ward with 500 other inmates.

 

Rajai Shahr and Urmia Prisons

The prisoners are deprived of medical care, disinfecting substances, and hygiene products such as alcohol, mask, and gloves.  Payam Shakiba, Mohammad Banazadeh Amirkhizi, and Majid Asadi are serving their third year in prison. Arash Sadeghi, who is diagnosed with Chondrosarcoma (bone cancer), has had an infection in his right hand, digestion issues, and because of his weak immune system should be prioritized to be granted a furlough. Saeed Shirzad is spending the last months of his prison sentence.

On March 2, 2020, Mohammad Ghanbardoost, a political prisoner, was transferred to the hospital due to having symptoms of coronavirus disease. He kept with other political prisoners and may infected others. He was arrested on August 16, 2017, and was sentenced to five years in prison on the charge of “cooperating with Takfiri groups”.

Several Coronavirus suspected patients in Urmia Prison were transferred to hospitals outside the prison. One Urmia prisoner died in hospital, but prison authorities claimed that he was infected outside the prison.

 

Update on political prisoners temporary releases

On March 3, 2020, Mohammad Karimi granted a furlough and temporarily released until April 3, 2020. Mr. Karimi was sentenced to one-year imprisonment on the charge of “propaganda against the state” which was upheld by the appeals court. on July 3, 2020, he was arrested and transferred to Evin Prison to serve his sentence.

On March 2, 2020, Shahnaz Akmali, political prisoner, was granted a furlough and temporarily released until April 3, 2020. She was arrested on January 15, 2020. She was sentenced to one-year imprisonment and was banned from having any social media account, membership in any group, and leaving the country on the charge of “propaganda against the state”. An appeals court upheld her sentence without hearing either Ms. Akmali or her attorney. She is the mother of Mostafa Karim Beygi one of the people who was killed by security forces during green movement uprising in 2009.

On February 29, 2020, Reza Gholamhosseini, a political prisoner of Bandar Abbas Prison, was granted a furlough and temporarily released until April 3, 2020. He was arrested on September 25, 2019, and was sentenced to three years imprisonment on the charges of “propaganda against the state” and “insulting supreme leader”. His sentence was reduced to 18 months later because he did not request an appeal.