A day on from reports that coronavirus was spreading among Iran’s prison population, medical personnel and officials appear to have been unable to stop the outbreak — made worse by Iran’s overcrowded, unhygienic prison environment. Families of prisoners have voiced their mounting fears over the situation.
Late on February 25, prominent member of parliament Mahmoud Sadeghi announced that he has contracted coronavirus, and also spoke out against prison conditions in light of the crisis.
"Inmates who went to the clinic today saw two inmates from other wards who, according to the clinic personnel, were suspected of being infected with coronavirus and were quarantined,” a prisoner at Greater Tehran Prison told me. “One of the clinic personnel said they might be transferred elsewhere. We are all worried that if they test positive for coronavirus, then all the inmates in that ward will have been affected and the disaster will have begun.”
Posting on Twitter, Sadeghi urged Ebrahim Raeesi, the head of Iran’s judiciary, to allow political prisoners a temporary leave of absence to prevent them from contracting the virus, adding that he had listened to the complaints and worries of "families of security-related and political prisoners.” Raeesi did not respond to the request, and the fact that warrants for fresh arrests have been issued in the last few days suggests the judiciary is not about to practice leniency toward political prisoners or those accused of posing national security threats — although these “threats” are linked to news about the coronavirus outbreak in Iran.
People Arrested and Accused of Spreading Fake News
Hossein Rahimi, the chief of Tehran police, announced that three new people had been identified and arrested for allegedly "spreading terror and fear about the virus." Ali Rostami, the prosecutor for Gilan-e Gharb, said four people had been arrested in Kermanshah province on charges of spreading false news on social media concerning the outbreak, and deaths resulting from it.
Judicial officials also issued an arrest warrant for Zia Nabavi, a well-known activist who has faced arrest several times before. At the same time, in an apparently contradictory statement, judiciary spokesperson Gholam Hossein Ismaili said at a meeting of the Supreme Judiciary Council that judges and officials should refrain from issuing new arrest warrants with the exception of cases where it is absolutely necessary so as “not to increase the prison population” and that “more leave should to prisoners” in the current environment.
Ismaili said the Supreme Judicial Council should approve the granting of special periods of leave to eligible prisoners. The judiciary spokesman also claimed that, under the direction of the head of the judiciary, the Prisons' Organization had formed a special committee in cooperation with forensic medicine specialists and Iran’s Ministry of Health to adopt preventive measures. “Good progress has been made regarding the status and health of all prisoners,” adding that “medical teams are stationed in prisons” and the situation was being adequately assessed and monitored.
Yet neither he or other officials provided evidence that such measures were in place. Meanwhile, activists and opponents of the Islamic Republic regime continue to be detained, and the situation does not appear to have changed for inmates, apart from some prisons having set up quarantine areas.
Does Quarantine Mean Prisoners are Being Left to Die?
The brother of a prisoner held in Evin Prison on charges of financial crimes told IranWire that a judicial official told him all prisons in the country were being allocated an evacuation room for prisoners with suspected coronavirus. “I am following up my brother's request for leave. I had already gone to jail to see officials and hoped that these disturbing circumstances would lead to a positive response to his request for leave, which had been put on hold for months already. The official said that had they had not still received an executive order on how to identify eligible prisoners for leave. In response to my concern, he said, ‘don't worry about coronavirus, they are preparing a special quarantine ward in all prisons; not everyone will be affected.’”
News of special quarantine wards has not been confirmed, but I spoke to Saeed Soltanpour, a Gonabadi dervish in custody in Karaj Central Prison, two halls in the prison are due to be evacuated and used as a quarantine ward. Sultanpour says they have been told the move was carried out on the orders of the deputy to the Director of General of Health of the Prisons' Organization.
Sultanpour said no one has explained how the quarantine ward will help solve or manage the coronavirus crisis in the event of a widespread outbreak. “It is futile because patients should be taken to hospitals and leaving them in a vacant room with no medical equipment and no medical services cannot control disease. We told the inspectors that it was useless to quarantine sick prisoners; they had to be treated. They had no answer. They said, ‘we would put them in hall numbers 1 and 15 for now. But here too, they have no medical services. They seem to be releasing them there to die."
Meanwhile, a prisoner in Evin Prison who has been in contact with his family reported that some prisoners were being transferred from ward eight to ward seven. On February 25, Shahrzad Izadi, the wife of Anousheh Ashouri, an Iranian-British engineer jailed in Iran, had reported a case of coronavirus in ward four of Evin Prison. It is unclear whether the new plan to transfer prisoners from one ward to another in Evin Prison is part of an emergency program to dedicate one of the prison wards for quarantine purposes, or whether the move is simply part of the ongoing changes in Evin Prison in recent months.
Wards seven and eight held more than 2,000 prisoners a few months ago, but in recent months the majority of these prisoners have been transferred to the Greater Tehran Prison, also known as Fashafuyeh Prison. Saeed Malekpour, a former political prisoner, wrote on his Facebook page, “There is a huge amount of construction going on in the area of Evin, with electric fences being installed, replacement of the old cameras and the entire prison being turned into a super security detention center, similar to Detention Center 209 and Detention Center 2-A.”
Who’s Responsible? The Legal Perspective
I asked lawyer Musa Barzin Khalifehloo what authority would be responsible for the deaths of prisoners in the face of a possible widespread outbreak of coronavirus. Would it be the judicial authorities or the Prisons Organization? Barzin told me that the Prisons Organization regulations “clearly state that fighting diseases in prisons and the responsibility for maintaining prisoners' health lies with the Prisons Organization —it has to take measures so that the coronavirus does not become an epidemic in prison. It is their duty."
According to Barzin, if a prisoner dies from coronavirus in prison, his family could sue the prison officials for second-degree murder. “When prisoners are neglected and disregarded by authorities, the person responsible for maintaining the life of these prisoners could face charges. If a prisoner is found to have lost his life due to the negligence of prison authorities, the prison authorities will be obliged to pay blood money to the family and be subjected to a supplementary punishment. The supplementary sentence can be between three and 10 years in prison.”
Families of political prisoners have demanded to know, in these exceptional circumstances, with the probability of a prisoner spreading the disease, why does the judiciary does not release or grant conditional leave to political and non-political prisoners who do not pose a threat to society? Barzin says in practice prison authorities have the power to do this, although it is not stipulated anywhere in writing and is more of an implicit understanding. He added, too, that prison by-laws do refer to the importance of disinfecting prisons in situations where illnesses pose a risk, although there is no mention of contagious diseases. Nonetheless, it stipulates for prevention measures. "If the authorities cannot prevent the spread of diseases, there is something else they can do,” Barzin said, adding that the responsible prosecutor can “restrict the number of people brought into the prison, release eligible inmates on bail, and only continue to incarcerate prisoners sentenced to death or serving life sentences.” Essentially, he said, “that means the legislature has given the authorities the power to reduce the number of inmates in prisons to prevent an outbreak."
Many lawyers have criticized some of the pardons the Supreme Leader has issued in the past, specifically when these pardons and releases have helped the leader to ensure his will is carried out. But in the current environment, the Leader could step in to achieve a positive result. "Many prisoners can be released,” Barzin said. “In addition, the parliament can intervene and pass a provisional law on the release of prisoners. At any rate, the law has made it possible for officials to anticipate effective measures” in unusual or emergency circumstances.
But do the Iranian authorities and politicians have the will to use these legal capacities? Or will they choose to neglect the lives of prisoners? Do they want to take advantage of the current situation and incarcerate even larger numbers of people, and suppress and deny them their rights? Barzin says the Islamic Republic's policy toward prisoners is anything but reformist and lenient. Regardless of policy, whether written or simply understood, “their real policy of the ruling system against prisoners and convicts is more one of revenge and repression.” Despite prison conditions being dire, with over capacity posing a danger, and reports of coronavirus cases mounting, Barzin does not believe the authorities will act in the best interest of the prison population. “ I do not think we can hope for the release of even one inmate,” he said.