On 18 March – a day before the Iranian New Year, and amid calls for prisoners to be released due to a severe outbreak of coronavirus inside Iranian prisons – Iran’s Judiciary Media Center announced an amnesty for a number of convicts by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. According to the news, Ayatollah Khamenei issued pardons or commuted the sentences of people sentenced by public and revolutionary courts, by the Armed Forces judiciary, as well as the sentences of some who were convicted under judges’ discretionary powers.
The amnesty – which domestic media in Iran has described as “unprecedented” – a number of convicts sentenced to less than five years in prison for “security” crimes have received reduced sentences and will not return to prison after their furloughs. The Iranian authorities describe political prisoners or prisoners of conscience as “security” prisoners.
The day before the amnesty was announced, Gholamhossein Esmaili, a spokesperson for the judiciary, said on 17 March that "about 85,000 prisoners" had been granted leave. Asghar Jahangir, head of the Iranian Prisons Organization, previously claimed on 9 March that thousands of prisoners had been temporarily released to limit the coronavirus outbreak within the prison system.
But authorities have not released a full list of the releases – making it impossible to verify their claims that 85,000 people have been granted leave. Many prisoners of conscience and political prisoners remain inside Iranian jails; the families of these individuals say they have been neither granted leave, nor pardoned. Political prisoners such as Arash Sadeqi, a human rights activist who is suffering from cancer, urgently need leave given he is more vulnerable to the coronavirus than healthier inmates. But Sadeqi remains behind bars.
Poor health conditions within Iranian jails and a lack of disinfection facilities have increased many families' fears that a coronavirus outbreak could harm their jailed loved ones.
Government departments, which earlier this week were closing for the Norooz holidays, meant that further prisoners were unlikely to be granted leave in the immediate future. Families were scrambling to try to secure release for their own loved ones in the last remaining few hours. But those inmates who were not among the 85,000 temporarily released, such as Gonabadi dervishes and political, ideological and environmental activists, are being held in Tehran’s Fashafuyeh Prison and have not been granted leave. IranWire knows of just one environmental activist, Abdolreza Koohpayeh, for example, who has been granted leave. Fashafuyeh is reportedly one of the worst prisons in Iran due to its poor health conditions – it is overcrowded with many prisoners sleeping on floors and forced to queue to use the toilets. The same situation exists in Rajaei prison in Karaj.
Many dual-national detainees who have been arrested on the pretext of security offences are also still being held in Evin Prison – even as foreign governments will hold Iran accountable for the health of their jailed citizens.
The relative of a prisoner currently in the women’s ward of Evin Prison said one guard had contracted the coronavirus in recent days while another guard was on sick leave due to a severe cold.
“One of the guards collapsed in the prison’s general store,” the relative told IranWire. “He was taken away and a week later the prison inmates heard that he’d been tested positive for coronavirus. The prison authorities had sent a team to disinfect the ward. A second guard, in bad shape because of a cold, is also on leave. The problem is that guards and staff go in and out of the prison – taking coronavirus with them into a confined space so that just one person can spread the virus to many others.”
The judiciary also issued a directive on 29 February saying the detainees would not be sent to prison until the end of April. It also said that new arrivals to prisons had been reduced. But the Even prisoner’s relative said that, contrary to statements by the judiciary, new inmates are also still being transferred to prisons.
“Two new prisoners have entered Evin's women's ward over the past 10 days. But the other prisoners protested against the rival of the second new inmate and fortunately she was sent to quarantine.”
From the women's ward of Evin Prison, which reportedly has 43 inmates, nearly 20 have been on leave since early March. Inmates such as Nasrin Sotoudeh, lawyer, Athena Daemi, civil activist, Monireh Arabshahi, Saba Kordafshari, women's rights activists and anti-veil campaigners, Maryam Akbari Monfared, a longtime political prisoner, Aras Amiri, charged with espionage for the British Council, Niloufar Bayani and Sepideh Kashani, environmental activists, all continue to be held in jail.
One of those released temporarily from Evin was Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the Iranian-British prisoner, who was released on condition of wearing an ankle tag (which her family had to hire) and within 300 meters of her family home. Neda Ashtiani, Hengameh Shahidi, Soheila Hijab, Samin Maghsoudi, Shahnaz Akmali, Neda Naji, and Negin Qadimian have also been on leave for the past month.
"Since early March, due to the spread of the coronavirus, family members of prisoners have not been allowed to visit the Prosecutor's Office overseeing prisons," Masoumeh Nemati, mother of Athena Daemi, told IranWire with regards to her attempts to request leave for her daughter.
“The only places where prisoners' families can pursue leave for their loved ones is the Prosecutor's Office. ... Athena's father and I go twice a week with bail money in our hands. But no one is allowed now to enter the office."
According to Nemati, no reason other than the disapproval of the prosecutor has been provided to families over the past month.
"We only care about Athena's health," Nemati has said, addressing judicial authorities. "She has not had a prison furlough in four years. Her absence is something we have experienced before, but this year is really hard for me. Her father and I look forward to seeing her. Prison conditions are dangerous. We want them to grant her leave during this time and then we will return her to prison."
Nemati even said that, contrary to the judiciary officials restriction on prisoners' entry into and out of prison, "last Wednesday, without notice and without my daughter's lawyer knowing, the authorities wanted Athena to be taken to court for a new trial, which she fortunately resisted. Athena did not consent to leave prison as a way of protesting the conditions inside it."
Mehdi Mahmoudian, a human rights activist, said in an interview with Ensaf News: "A few of the more well-known and media-savvy inmates, especially in Tehran, were able to take advantage of the temporary releases, but other inmates, especially in provinces such as Kurdistan and Azerbaijan, did not have the opportunity ... even those who had very light sentences were not allowed to leave, like Mrs. Narges Mohammadi."