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Journalist Alireza Rajaei: Victim of Medical Neglect in Prison

September 8, 2017
Niusha Saremi
5 min read

Half of his face is bandaged. He leans on an orange hospital mattress dressed in light blue, a common color for hospital patients. His left eye is half-open, looking off to somewhere in space. His right eye, damaged by sinus cancer, was removed during a 14-hour operation. Part of his jaw was also removed. 

The man in the photograph is 54-year-old Alireza Rajaei, a prominent Iranian journalist and member of the semi-opposition political alliance known as the "nationalist-religious" coalition. For four years, from May 2011 to October 2015, he was in prison on charges of “acting against national security” and “propaganda against the regime” — charges that are all too familiar to Iranian journalists.

Several of his relatives and friends believe his current condition is the direct result of the judiciary’s decision to deny him access to proper treatment. Hossein Ronaghi, a former political prisoner and cellmate of Rajaei's, tweeted that, while in prison, he repeatedly complained of pain in his jaw and his face; he received painkillers from the prison clinic but nothing more. When a doctor prescribed that Rajaei be sent to a hospital outside the prison for diagnosis, prison officials ignored him. Rajaei’s supporters say, as a result, his cancer went untreated and spread.

“The cancer would not have advanced to such a degree if they had paid attention to his pain while in prison and had allowed him to go outside prison for diagnosis,” a former colleague of his told Journalism Is Not a Crime, IranWire’s affiliate website. “As soon as he was released, he was diagnosed with cancer of the sinus and they started chemotherapy. He went through several rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy but the cancer was so advanced that they had to remove an eye and part of his jaw.”

Ronaghi says that Rajaei and his family were constantly harassed when he was in prison. Now, he says, Iran’s judiciary must take the blame for his cancer, and for the loss of his eye and part of his face.

Brazen Harassment

In December 2012, political prisoner Abolfazl Ghadiani wrote a letter to Iran’s chief justice, Sadegh Larijani, demanding an end to the Intelligence Ministry’s harassment of the families of political prisoners.

In his letter, Abolfazl Ghadiani referred to Ali Awsat, the Intelligence Ministry interrogator responsible for Alireza Rajaei’s case. “From the beginning of Dr. Alireza Rajaei’s illegal detention, [Mr. Awsat] has repeatedly harassed his family through different means and has put them under a variety of psychological and mental pressures, creating the worst conditions for a respectable and oppressed family,” Ghadiani wrote in his letter. “Recently he has taken brazenness and meanness to a new level by telling Dr. Rajaei’s wife, ‘I will exile him to Borazjan or Rajaei Shahr Prison,’ and has outrageously asked her to divorce her husband. If you and other senior authorities of the regime had the slightest honor, these filthy interrogators would have been exposed and punished for actions a lot milder than this, so that such irreligious and immoral wills cannot find the opportunity for action, and people’s families will not be jerked around like this. But, unfortunately, today these individuals are even cheered and promoted by the country’s leaders.”

In an interview with the Center of Human Rights in Iran, Ghadiani’s wife Marzieh Rahimi described what Alireza Rajaei’s wife went through, based on her experience of meeting her during a prison visit. “I always see Mrs. Rajaei very upset during visits,” said Rahimi at the time. The visits take place through a booth. “Because we sit very close to each other, naturally sometimes we hear what other people are saying. At our last visit, I saw her with tears in her eyes as she told Mr. Rajaei that his interrogator tells her things on the phone. We had heard before that that interrogator sometimes calls Mr. Rajaei’s wife several times a day and sometimes every other day, and says things like, ‘What does Mr. Rajaei have that makes you wish to wait for him?’”

“When he was in Evin Prison, the authorities did not allow him to receive treatment,” Rajaei’s wife Leila Liaghat told the Center for Human Rights in Iran. “Every time he went to the prison clinic, they sent him back to Ward 350 [of Evin Prison] after only getting a shot or some pills. If he had been allowed to go to the hospital and get some tests, his illness could have been diagnosed and treated and he would not have lost an eye and part of his face.”

Denying Responsibility

Photographs of Rajaei after his operation have sparked outrage on social media and reports on his illness have made international headlines. Yet, on September 3, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, spokesman for the Iranian judiciary, denied any responsibility. “[Rajaei] was freed from prison about two years ago,” he said [Persian link]. “After the completion of his sentence he caught cancer. Many people in the country get cancer... When he was in prison he had no signs of illness. I looked at his prison file and saw he went to the clinic once for a cold and another time he was checked by an outside doctor for dental issues... Now, two years after he was freed, he has caught cancer and we are sad he lost an eye. But all these sensational things said about him are not going to help him and all they do is disturb public opinion... His illness has nothing to do with his imprisonment and there is no indication in his file he had cancer in prison. It happened two years after he was freed.”

Now Leila Liaghat is demanding change, and a vast improvement in the way prisoners are treated.  “For too long Iran’s judicial and prison authorities have violated its own laws and State Prison Regulations, which require proper medical treatment for prisoners,” she said. “It is time for Rouhani, the enforcer of Iran’s constitution, to address these violations.”

But if the past is any indication, there is little chance that anybody will be held accountable for the unjust treatment of Alireza Rajaei, or for his tragic loss. 

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