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Labor Activist Dies Because of Medical Neglect in Prison

October 9, 2017
Shima Shahrabi
5 min read

On October 5, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) announced the death of Mohammad Jarahi, an activist who had championed the rights of workers for years.  

“Mohammad Jarahi, veteran labor activist, died today around 8am at the Martyrs Hospital in Tajrish [Tehran],” read the news flash. “Jarahi, who suffered from thyroid cancer ,was first hospitalized in Tabriz and was then sent for further treatment to the Martyrs Hospital where he underwent surgery.” [Persian link]

While in prison, Jarahi was denied medical attention. His ordeal is the latest in a series of news stories about prisoners of conscience being denied appropriate medical treatment. Last month, photographs were circulated on social media of journalist Alireza Rajaei after he underwent surgery that left him disfigured, a situation that was the result of medical neglect in prison. Jailed dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has also been denied access to medical professionals outside Evin Prison, and press freedom group Reporters sans Frontieres has expressed concern over the health of jailed journalist Ehsan Mazandarani, who suffered a heart attack in prison last year and has been refused a transfer to see a doctor for his current ailing health. 

Mohammad Jarahi, a member of Iran’s House Painters Union, had been arrested repeatedly for his union activities. The last time was in spring  2011, when Intelligence Ministry agents arrested him. On August 18 that year, after two months of detention, Judge Rahim Hamlbar of Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court of Tabriz, the capital of East Azerbaijan Province, sentenced Jarahi and three other labor activists to a total of 22 years and six months in prison. Jarahi received a five-year sentence for “assembling an illegal group” — meaning a labor union — and “propaganda against the regime.” In November 2011, the appeals court upheld the sentences for all four labor activists.

While in prison, Jarahi’s health deteriorated sharply. “Mr. Jarahi is suffering from high blood pressure, high blood sugar level, high lipids and a neck problem, but every time when he visited the prison clinic, he just received few tablets, which did not have any effect on his condition,” a source told Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) in May 2016.

In February of 2013, Jarahi was transferred to hospital where he underwent surgery on his thyroid and post-operation tests showed that he was suffering from thyroid cancer. The doctors were of the opinion that he must begin his treatment as soon as possible but he was returned to prison. Despite pleas by his family for his transfer to an outside hospital, he was kept in prison until August 9, 2016, when he was released after serving his full sentence. Throughout the five years that he spent in prison, Jarahi was not given any leave of absence, medical or otherwise.

He Could Have Been Treated

“Thyroid cancer is often treatable provided the medical supervision and care continues,” Dr. S. Mohammadi, a Tehran-based endocrinologist, told IranWire. “Even after the treatment the patient must remain under the supervision of the doctor. Medical follow-ups are of utmost importance.” During the follow-ups, the doctor monitors the symptoms, examines the patient and might send a patient for a radioactive iodine uptake test (RAIU) or sonography. “Follow-up is very important for preventing a recurrence of the cancer or its spread, and also its side effects,” the doctor said. 

“He repeatedly requested medical leave of absence for treatment and follow-up but his requests were routinely denied,” a source told IranWire.

“I am suffering from many illnesses, from thyroid cancer to diabetes...due to my age (55 years old) and the bad nutritional and hygienic conditions in Tabriz Prison,” Jarahi wrote in a letter from prison in September 2013 [Persian link]. “Unfortunately prison officials have taken no action toward my treatment...I have undergone one surgery because of thyroid cancer and according to specialist doctors I must continue my treatment outside prison...[but] after five months, prison officials have not given me an answer.”

“In the past two years I have not been given a leave of absence,” he wrote, “and even after my thyroid surgery and contrary to the doctors’ prescription for complete rest, prison officials refused to grant me medical furlough and I was returned to prison immediately after surgery.” Under Iranian law, prisoners are entitled to temporary release from prison on medical grounds. 

“Prison Authorities Killed Me”

In another letter written in January 2014 and addressed to labor unions across the world, Jarahi described his conditions in prison. “I am in Tabriz Prison, subjected to threats, persecutions, and torments of all types and varieties by the prison guards,” he wrote. “I have been suffering from an entire month of sleeplessness. I lose consciousness for two hours because of tiredness and severe lack of sleep. They do not pay the least attention to my requests for medical attention and hospital. The prison authorities witness this mental and physical torture. I announce to all workers and freedom and equality-loving people that the prison authorities will have caused my death.”

Jarahi had been incarcerated before his arrest in 2011. “In 2007 he was arrested because he was in possession of a trade union bulletin,” a friend of his told IranWire. “He was sentenced to four months in prison for possession of this bulletin. He was released after one month but then he was expelled from his job because he had been absent for a month.”

Mohammad Jarahi was only 59 when he died in the hospital. But even on his deathbed, he continued to defend workers rights and trade unions. In a short video (on YouTube, in Persian) recorded at his hospital bed, he declared: “Since the Islamic Republic has denied workers all their benefits...[we] trade unionist and labor rights activists must help each other. We have nobody else...”

In the end, Jarahi’s five-year sentence amounted to a death sentence. His courage and refusal to abandon his activism will long be remembered by workers, political prisoners and human rights activists around Iran. 

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