When shocking photographs of journalist Alireza Rajaei were published on September 12, Emadeddin Baghi was moved to talk about his own appalling experience in prison. Like Rajaei, whose serious medical condition went untreated in prison, the human rights activist was denied vital medical attention after being diagnosed with a suspected malignant tumor.
Posting on Telegram, Baghi said that in 2001, while he was serving a two-year sentence for writing about the infamous “Chain Murders” of dissidents and intellectuals in the 1990s, the now-disbarred prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi blocked him from receiving treatment. Baghi says, however, that Mortazavi was not the main one responsible for what happened to him. Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei, who is today the Iranian Judiciary’s spokesman, was really the man to blame.
According to Baghi, the prison warden wrote to Mohseni Ejei directly several times about his condition. At the time, Mohseni Ejei was the head of the Special Court for Crimes by Government Employees. In his communications with the judicial official, the warden pointed out the urgent need to transfer Baghi to a hospital because of the danger posed by the tumor. But Mohseni Ejei refused to approve the transfer. “Apparently,” Baghi writes, he “knew and was hoping that, with the delay, the tumor would reach a point that it could not be treated and...God willing, they would get rid of [me].”
This is just one example of many, demonstrating that intentional neglect of prisoners’ medical conditions, even if these conditions clearly threaten their lives, has a long history.
“If an ill prisoner needs to be hospitalized for complete treatment according to a medical certificate, he must also have the consent of the prosecutor in addition to the approval of the medical officials of the prison,” says a report by the Center for Support of Human Rights (CSHR), an NGO founded in 2003 by the Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi. “As a result, political prisoners and prisoners of conscience will be sent to hospital often too late, even with the agreement of the prison medical doctors. It is even more painful given the fact that the political prisoners and the prisoners of conscience often suffer even more humiliation than others, and their hands or feet are tied to the hospital bed with handcuffs, which effectively prevents any normal mobility.”
In 2014, the CSHR published a detailed report [Persian PDF] that documented the names of 43 prisoners who had lost their lives over the course of the previous two decades, and outlined conditions surrounding their deaths. Some prisoners died because of medical neglect, while others met their deaths after they were beaten and tortured by prison officials and interrogators.
Over the last four years, President Rouhani has talked a lot about his Citizens’ Rights Charter, a key campaign promise during the 2013 presidential election. Among other things, Article 64 of the charter [PDF] declares that “Detainees, convicts and prisoners have the right to enjoy citizens’ rights pertaining to them, including the right to have suitable nutrition, clothes, health and medical care...” However, Rouhani does not have the power to force the judiciary to respect these rights, and the judiciary has not even paid lip service to the charter. As a result, the medical attention prisoners have received since his election as president has been just as dismal as before.
The plight of journalist Alireza Rajaei has received considerable international media attention. For four years, from May 2011 to October 2015, Rajaei was in prison on charges of “acting against national security” and “propaganda against the regime.” 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 recommended that Rajaei be sent to a hospital outside the prison for diagnosis, prison officials ignored him. As soon as Rajaei was released from prison, he was diagnosed with cancer. In September, Rajaei underwent 14-hour surgery, and doctors removed his right eye and part of his jaw.
Human rights activist Narges Mohammadi is another prisoner of conscience who has endured appalling treatment. She suffers from a pulmonary embolism and a disease similar to epilepsy that causes her to lose muscle control. For a long time, prison officials prevented her from receiving treatment and withheld her medication. Doctors stated that she could not cope with prison conditions, but, again, officials disregarded their advie. Her husband Taghi Rahmani says that while the medication alleviates her symptoms, it does nothing to improve her condition.
Alireza Golipour, an employee of the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, was arrested in 2012 by Intelligence Ministry agents. In the summer of 2015, he was sentenced at Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran. Judge Abolghasem Salavati sentenced him to 39 years and nine months in prison on charges of espionage, insulting the Supreme Leader and supporting the opposition group the People’s Mojahedin Organization (MEK). He went on a hunger strike in protest against his treatment by the judiciary and security agencies, and now he suffers from a bleeding kidney. Doctors insist he must be released due to his medical condition, especially because he suffers from lung cancer and cancer of the lymph nodes and has already undergone surgery twice. But judiciary officials refuse to let him go.
Soheil Arabi was arrested in November 2013 by the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Corp. The blogger was sentenced to death for “insulting the sacred” but the appeals court reduced his sentence to seven and a half years in prison. Arabi has been on a hunger strike in Evin Prison’s Ward 8 for almost two months and now suffers from bleeding in his stomach and has extremely low blood sugar and blood pressure. His family fears for his life.
Student and human rights activist Arash Sadeghi was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2015 for “assembly and collusion against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” “spreading lies in cyberspace,” and “insulting the founder of the Islamic Republic.” He is also serving a four-year suspended prison sentence issued in 2010 on similar charges — so his sentence is 19 years in total. After several hunger strikes, his health has collapsed and he is in critical condition. He suffers from various ailments. His heart muscles have become extremely feeble and his liver has been badly damaged. He is unable even to go to the bathroom by himself.
Yousef Emadi, a music producer and brothers Mehdi and Hossein Rajabian were arrested by the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence unit in October 2013 for running BargMusic, an alternative digital music production and distribution company that operated without an official permit. In February 28, 2016, Branch 54 of Iran’s Revolutionary Court, presided over by Judge Hassan Babaee, sentenced them to three years in prison and a three-year suspended sentence on charges of “insulting the sacred” and "propaganda against the regime." But in September 2017, Emadi was sentenced to an additional year in prison on new charges, although he was supposed to be released on parole. He is now on Ward 7 of Evin Prison and is suffering from an inflammatory bowel disease [Persian link].
Saeed Shirzad, a children rights activist, is serving a five-year prison sentence, which was issued by Judge Abolghasem Salavati of Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court on September 12, 2015. Salavati handed down the sentence as punishment for “assembly and collusion against national security” after Shirzad helped the children of political prisoners pursue education. Shirzad is being kept on Ward 10 at Rajaei Shahr Prison. Following a hunger strike in late 2016 and early 2017, he has been suffering from an ulcer and damage to his kidney and spinal cord. Shirzad began his strike to protest against what he described in a letter sent to judicial officials as “the quiet death of prisoners” — a reference to human rights violations suffered by prisoners at the hands of the staff of Rajaei Shahr Prison.
Atena Daemi, a civil and children’s rights activist, was sentenced by the Revolutionary Court on March 7, 2015 to seven years in prison on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” “insulting the Supreme Leader and the sacred,” and “concealing crime evidence.” She is suffering from a kidney infection and gallbladder stones but, despite the medical examiner’s recommendations, she was not only denied medical treatment outside the prison, in August 2017 she was charged with collusion with the doctors to build a case against the prison clinic. Then, in September, Daemi was denied urgent major surgery on her gallbladder after she demanded that the authorities fulfill their promise to allow her to undergo the surgery without handcuffs and with a family member in attendance.
Political prisoner Hamed Rouhinejad was arrested in 2009 and charged with working with a monarchist group. He was sentenced to death, and the appeals court reduced his sentence to 10 years in prison. He suffers from multiple sclerosis and loss of his eyesight, but prison officials have repeatedly prevented him from receiving treatment in hospitals outside the prison.
Lawyer and human rights activist Abdolfattah Soltani has been behind bars since 2011, serving a 13-year prison sentence for “being awarded the  Nuremberg International Human Rights Award [PDF],” agreeing to media interviews about his clients’ cases, and “co-founding the Defenders of Human Rights Center” with Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi. He is serving his sentence at Evin Prison. “During his six years in prison, my father has been suffering from problems in his digestive tract, blood pressure fluctuations, and anemia, none of which existed before he was incarcerated,” says his daughter Maede Soltani. “Even the doctors have said that his health issues are due to his imprisonment and he needs medical care and rest. But the judicial officials give all sorts of excuses for opposing medical leave.”
Mahmoud Salehi, a labor union activist, was sentenced to one year in prison in February 2017 for “creating an opposition group” and “propaganda against the regime.” He was arrested in April 2015 ahead of International Labor Day, May 1, in Sanandaj, the capital of Iran’s Kurdistan province. A month later he was hospitalized for serious urinary complications and eventually both of his kidneys were removed. On October 28, 2017, security agents arrested him while he was undergoing dialysis at a hospital. They told him he must begin his sentence. “We are very worried for him because he needs his pills and has to get special treatment in the hospital twice a week, including dialysis,” said his son Samerand Salehi. “Now we’re worried about his life.”
Iran’s Gonabadi Dervishes, a peaceful Sufi order, have not been spared. Hamid Reza Moradi was arrested in September 2011 because he had written for Majzooban-e Noor, a news site run by the Gonabadi Dervishes. He was sentenced to 10 years and six months in prison for “acting against national security,” “disturbing public opinion,” “spreading lies” and “propaganda against the regime.” Since his incarceration, he has been suffering from heart problems and clogged arteries. “They were severely beaten and abused and then they were left untreated,” says Sedigheh Khalili, Moradi’s wife, when asked about what happened to her husband and his co-defendants after they were taken to Evin Prison’s Ward 209. “My husband’s teeth were broken and his spine was injured. They only took them to the infirmary and there is no medical treatment there, only painkillers.”
Mostafa Daneshjou, a lawyer and a member of the Gonabadi order who spent time in prison from 2012 to 2015, was found unconscious in the bathroom of Ward 350 of Evin Prison in October 2013. He had been transferred to the prison clinic due to his deteriorating health and fluctuating blood pressure for the fourth time in three days. Each time he was brought to the clinic, prison officials refused to send him to a hospital outside the prison. He still suffers from respiratory and heart conditions that he contracted during his incarceration.
Other dervishes who have faced medical neglect include Amir Eslami, who suffers from cardiovascular problems and had a heart attack in prison; Reza Entesari, who also had a heart attack in prison and suffers from cardiovascular problems; and Mohammad Ali Shamshirzan, who suffered from a serious lung infection and is still in prison. In an unprecedented move in October 2017, the judiciary changed his sentence and that of another dervish to life in prison because they refused to “repent” and abandon their beliefs.
A number of prisoners have died in prison due to medical neglect since 2013, the year when Hassan Rouhani made his promises about citizens’ rights and won the presidency.
Khabat Moradi, a Kurdish prisoner, died in Sanandaj Central Prison. He was only 20 years old. He had been suffering from diabetes and died because prison officials refused to provide him with insulin injections [Persian link].
Cellmates found Shahrokh Zamani, a labor union activist, dead on September 13, 2015. Zamani had been arrested on June 4, 2011 in Tabriz, the capital of East Azerbaijan province. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison. While in prison, he was put under intense pressure, including being kept in solitary confinement, being subjected to frequent transfers and denial of medical care. He died of a stroke after being denied medical treatment for chest pains and pains in other parts of his body.
On November 27 of the same year, Mohammad Hammadi, an Iranian-Arab rights activist, died at Sheyban Prison in Ahvaz, where he had served seven of a 10-year sentence [Persian link]. Prison officials said that he had died of a stroke but his family, who arranged to secretly visit his body at the hospital, said that it appeared that he had been strangled with a rope, as marks were visible on his throat and hands.
Ehsanollah Ehsani was a 20-year-old Afghan refugee in Iran and a member of the Iranian paramilitary Basij organization [Persian link]. He was a legal resident and had a work permit, but in May 2016, police arrested him in the city of Yazd and charged him with theft. When he was released, he told his family that he had been tortured. He was arrested again and died in the hospital six days later. Hospital officials told his family that he had been brought in covered with blood, his heart was ruptured, he was suffering from internal bleeding and he had a dent on his head.
Alireza Rezaei was born in Iran to an Afghan family [Persian link]. On September 20, 2015, as he was trying to cross illegally into Turkey, border guards arrested him. He died a few hours later at a detention center. Before his death he was beaten unconscious by the guards before they took him to the station.
In June 2016, Iman Rashidi Yeganeh, a prisoner at Khorramabad, died as a result of a judge’s decision to send him to prison without adequate evidence and without due process. Despite a doctor stating that the inmate should not be returned to prison due to serious physical and psychological problems, the judge ordered Yeganeh to return. He died a week later. A source close to the prisoner told Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) that Rashidi had been arrested by mistake and that he had not committed the offense of which he was accused.
“Iman was arrested and taken to Parsilon Prison at Khorramabad based on the confession of another defendant,” said the source. At the hearing that followed, he said, an individual told the judge that the person accused of the crime was another person with the same name as Yeganeh. “But the judge did not accept it and once again transferred Iman to prison... Iman’s situation got worse day by day, so he even lost the desire to eat completely and only drank a little water daily with the help of friends. According to one of his cellmates, every night he was awakened by frightening nightmares and ran in the hallway of prison...He died after less than a week in jail,” he said.
This list of prisoners who have been the victims of medical neglect is not exhaustive. These names, and the stories of these individuals, offer a glimpse into one of the most dire problems that political prisoners in Iran face. And, despite gestures toward reform, any move to introduce change will face huge obstacles, not least those posed by the political infighting and deep divisions that characterize Iranian society today.