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Covid-19 Fears for Jailed Human Rights Activist

July 14, 2020
Niloufar Rostami
6 min read
Narges Mohammadi, who is being held in Zanjan Women's Prison, has symptoms of Covid-19 but the prison is doing very little to help her or other inmates
Narges Mohammadi, who is being held in Zanjan Women's Prison, has symptoms of Covid-19 but the prison is doing very little to help her or other inmates
Mohammadi’s husband Taghi Rahmani says the Prison Organization has refused to grant prisoners leave, even though other facilities across the country did so at the start of the coronavirus outbreak
Mohammadi’s husband Taghi Rahmani says the Prison Organization has refused to grant prisoners leave, even though other facilities across the country did so at the start of the coronavirus outbreak

Fears are mounting that prominent jailed human rights activist Narges Mohammadi could have contracted Covid-19. Mohammadi, who is serving a 16-year prison sentence on several charges including endangering national security, has told her husband Taghi Rahmani that she has been suffering from symptoms along with 11 other inmates at Zanjan Women’s Prison. The human rights defender suffers from a debilitating neurological condition that has caused lung problems and seizures, so her life could be at serious risk if she has the disease.

On July 13, Mohammadi’s family published a letter she wrote to Iran’s health ministry, urging it to protect inmates at Zanjan Prison from the Covid-19 pandemic. In the letter, she says she had been tested for the disease but the results have not been communicated to her or the other prisoners. 

Rahmani has said that Zanjan Women’s Prison had done very little to protect inmates from the spread of the disease. So far, he said, all the prison had done was to separate 12 ill inmates from other prisoners and give them Ibuprofen tablets. This echoes several other reports regarding the Prison Organization’s approach to the virus across Iran’s prisons.

The prosecutor's office at Zanjan Prison rejected Narges Mohammadi's request for leave, despite her pre-existing health conditions. He told her he could not do anything to help her. Despite thousands of prisoners being temporarily released when the epidemic began to hit Iran, Rahmani says that Zanjan officials have refused to do the same for its inmates, consistently denying that there were any cases of Covid-19 in the facility.  

As reports of 12 inmates or more possibly having the disease surfaced, the second wave of the epidemic has been spreading across the country. Many provinces are in a “red” or emergency state, meaning the risk of contracting the illness is acute. 

According to Iran’s official statistics released on Monday, July 12, 203 more people had lost their lives to Covid-19.

 "The priority for the medical system is the heath of the citizens outside the prison,” Rahman said. “We, the families of the detainees, ask the authorities to at least agree for them to take leave until Covid-19 is [under control]. Autumn is coming and the virus is not going to go away. This situation is extremely dangerous for people like Narges, who has acute lung disease."

Rahmani also said one of the 12 women prisoners who had contracted Covid-19 had been transferred to Zanjan Hospital. "At first she was sent to the hospital for coronavirus testing, but because the hospital was so crowded, she was sent back to prison without being tested. Sometime later, when her condition worsened, she was taken to the hospital again. A doctor told her that she had Covid-19 but the hospital was full. The doctor asked the prison officers to inform the prison about her disease. However, the only thing the authorities have done was to quarantine the 12 people [suspected of having the disease] in a room and give them ibuprofen."

He said the ill inmates were not given any support. "One has to pray that their bodies will be able to fight the disease. Narges suffers from a pulmonary embolism and the virus is very dangerous for her. Her family has applied to the Zanjan Prosecutor's Office for leave so that Narges can regain her health during leave and away from the contaminated environment of the prison, and then return to prison. But the prosecutor said he could do nothing about it. Does this represent anything other than the perverse and vengeful attitude of the judiciary toward Narges?”


An Appeal to Protect her Health

Narges Mohammadi, who faced years of harassment from authorities even before her current time in prison, has appealed to Saeed Namaki, Iran’s Minister of Health, Treatment, and Medical Education, asking for an investigation into her situation and 11 other inmates with Covid-19 symptoms.

In her letter, she asked for a representative from the Ministry of Health to be sent to Zanjan Women's Prison to assess the situation.

Mohammadi’s family posted the letter, which she wrote on July 11, on social media on July 13. “July 11: Zanjan Women’s Prison,” Mohammadi writes. “There are 18 of use. We were separated from one other, and six without coronavirus symptoms were transferred to another ward, and the remaining 12, who have been showing coronavirus symptoms since almost 11 days ago, were placed in quarantine. Last week our condition worsened and after follow-ups from families, we were tested for coronavirus. But the test answers were never communicated to us. Today, suddenly, people came onto the ward and separated the inmates. One of them, who was taken to the hospital on Thursday in a critical condition, was released on bail this morning after having being given a diagnosis of Covid-19.

"About a month ago, we had about 30 new inmates, some of whom had Covid-19 symptoms," she continues. "One of them was even taken to prison with a coronavirus infection certificate, but as their condition worsened, they were sent on leave.”


Threatened, Denied Rights, and Prevented From Speaking to her Children

Narges Mohammadi was transferred from Evin Prison to Zanjan six months ago for unknown reasons. Since there, she has faced harassment and threats from some of the inmates, including a woman being held on murder charges who threatened to rape and kill her. 

She has also been denied high-protein food that would help keep her healthy, her husband says. "For months, Narges has been eating cheese, tomatoes, eggs, and onions. Prison food is normally not edible at all; but even when she offers to pay with her own money, they do not provide meat and chicken for her.” She has also been denied books, while other prisons are entitled to them. 

Rahman added that his wife has been deprived of hearing her children's voices for 10 months and that she has been banned from making phone calls outside of Iran. Taghi Rahman currently lives in Paris with the couple’s two children.

"No one is held accountable for all this suffering and injustice,” he says. “Where in the prison code does it say that a prisoner is not allowed to talk to her children or read a book? This is blatant harassment and abuse."

At the end of her letter to the minister, Mohammadi states that she is filing a legal complaint against the harsh conditions she has endured for the last six months at Zanjan Prison, highlighting the lack of medical care, and states that her letter will form part of her case.

"During this period, according to the order of the Ministry of Intelligence and the judiciary,” she writes, “I have been prohibited from buying meat at my own expense. Books and the possibility of calling my children abroad have been banned, and I have not heard from my children for almost a year. Infected with coronavirus, I still have no medicine or medical care.”


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