Behnam Mahjoubi, a Gonabadi dervish being held in Evin Prison, has died in Tehran's Loghman Hospital after eight months of imprisonment and torture.
The hospital's medical staff announced his death at 2pm on Tuesday, February 16. But security forces are understood to have ordered them to keep him attached to a respirator.
Behnam Mahjoubi had a diagnosed panic disorder and was unable to psychologically withstand imprisonment. But judicial authorities kept him behind bars despite a doctor’s order, and failed to deliver his medication on time throughout his eight months in prison.
The judiciary also paid no attention to his protests and hunger strike on several occasions. In October last year Mahjoubi was temporarily transferred to Aminabad Psychiatric Hospital, where clinicians did not act on his loss of speech and reported numbness of the body and instead, according to Mahjoubi himself, tortured him.
Two days ago it was reported that Behnam Mahjoubi had been transferred on February 13 from Evin Prison to the intensive care unit of Loghman Hospital, in a comatose state.
Shortly before his death was announced, Ebrahim Raeisi, the head of the Iranian judiciary, had declared at a meeting of the Supreme Judicial Council that the Islamic Republic treats its prisoners with "kindness" and "affection".
Two Days of Panic End in Tragedy
It was first reported on Sunday, February 14 that Behnam Mahjoubi had been transferred to Loghman Hospital the previous week due to drug poisoning and his deteriorating physical condition. Sources inside the prison say the dervish was finally hospitalized after three separate visits to the Evin Prison clinic and having fallen into a coma.
Just under two weeks ago on February 3, the judiciary had issued an order to postpone the execution of Mahjoubi's sentence with a bail of 200 million tomans. But as a lay worker with just three female relatives– his mother, wife and sister – this was an impossible amount for Mahjoubi to pay. He was also not able to choose a lawyer throughout the judicial process.
On February 15, 2021, members of Behnam Mahjoubi's family, who live in Kerman, went to Loghman Hospital in Tehran to follow up on their relative’s condition. But were told they were not allowed to visit. After hours of waiting, the ICU finally informed them that his level of consciousness – on a scale of three to 15, where three indicates deep coma – had dropped to below five, and his left lung was not working, for reasons unknown to the doctors.
Due to a lung infection the dervish could also only breathe with the help of a respirator. "His right lung was also full of vomit,” his family stated. “He had vomited while unconscious and the material went into his lung.”
Behnam Mahjoubi's family remained in front of Loghman Hospital overnight. They were joined by various human rights and civil rights activists, including Narges Mohammadi. In response to their ongoing efforts to arrange a visit, medical staff told Narges Mohammadi that the judiciary and the Prisons Organization had banned visits to this patient.
Meanwhile, on the same day, judiciary head Ebrahim Raeisi used a meeting of the Supreme Judicial Council to falsely claim that the Iranian judiciary treats its prisoners with kindness, stating: "We are ready to open our prisons so that human rights defenders can see any prisoner they want in Iran – on the condition that they let us see any prisoner we want in their country."
It was not until the morning of February 16 that Behnam Mahjoubi's family was allowed inside the hospital. IranWire understands that at 1.30pm, he was still showing slight signs of consciousness. But at 2pm, the doctors agreed to certify his death and moved to cut off the respirator.
According to enquiries made today by IranWire, the security services did not permit this to take place and instructed that the dervish remain connected to the machines. Then at 4.30pm today, the General Directorate of Prisons issued a statement claiming that Behnam Mahjoubi was still alive and receiving medical care. According to the announcement, Behnam Mahjoubi had been “poisoned due to excessive drug use”.
Why was Behnam Mahjoubi Imprisoned?
Behnam Mahjoubi was one of several Gonabadi dervishes arrested after taking part in a gathering in Tehran's Golestan-7 Street on February 19, 2018. The protest was violently suppressed by police. About a month and a half later, he was arrested in Isfahan in connection with the incident.
He was first taken to the Isfahan Intelligence Center and from there to Kerman, where he was held in solitary confinement for 40 days. He was eventually released on a 150 million toman bail, by which time his panic disorder had worsened due to the protracted isolation. Finally on August 18, 2019, he was sentenced by Branch 26 of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court to two years in prison. The sentence was later upheld by the Court of Appeal.
Behnam Mahjoubi had graduated with a bachelor's degree in business management and was by all accounts an excellent student at Kerman Azad University during his time there in 2009. But he became unemployed after the attack on dervishes in Golestan-7, exacerbating the pressures on his family.
In June 2020 he was summoned to prison despite being in possession of a medical note that should have prevented him from serving his sentence. In July it was reported that he and another political prisoner, Behnam Mousiavand, had been beaten on Ward 8 of Evin Prison.
From Prison to a Psychiatric Hospital
Despite the inhumane treatment he suffered, Behnam Mahjoubi did not remain silent in the face of injustices he witnessed in prison. In late August, he went on hunger strike in support of jailed human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh.
During the hunger strike, he fell to the ground in a faint due to a drop in his blood pressure. He was handcuffed and taken to the emergency room of Tajrish Martyrs Hospital. Doctors there advised that he remain under their care for at least three days, but prison officers returned him to Evin. There, his condition deteriorated further, but prison officials blocked his access to medication.
On August 27, Salehe Hosseini, his wife, published an open letter in which she said the prison doctor had prescribed her husband up to 14 tranquilizer pills a day and threatened to transfer him to Aminabad Mental Hospital if he did not take them. At the same time, she said he was being prevented by prison officers from accessing the drugs he needed for his neurological condition.
She warned that her husband’s physical and mental condition was reaching crisis point and she held the authorities responsible. “I, Salehe Hosseini, the wife of Behnam Mahjoubi, am speaking out against this injustice,” she wrote, “and I ask for the help of all those who hear my voice. The lives of our loved ones are in danger and I am afraid of losing Behnam. I declare, from here on, that the responsibility for my husband's life lies with the Islamic Republic."
Five days after the letter was published, an audio file was released in which Mahjoubi protested against the conditions in prison. He spoke with a cough and shortness of breath that appeared consistent with the symptoms of Covid-19. As a consequence of this, he was then transferred to Aminabad Psychiatric Hospital.
On being returned to Evin, he published another audio file detailing the torture he had been subjected to there: "I was tied to the bed. They gave me injections and tablets. They did – things that were wrong, I can’t say it. The least of these was that they deliberately didn’t control their urine and splashed it on us.” He said he feared the prison authorities were trying to kill him.
In the immediate aftermath, Behnam Mahjoubi was repeatedly anesthetized. After he lost the power of speech, some of his associates issued a collective statement calling for his immediate release, stating that he had also been subjected to electric shocks in Aminabad Hospital. His condition continued to deteriorate but he told his relatives that he feared if he went to the prison clinic, he would be transferred back to Aminabad. Finally the judiciary stated in a letter to Evin Detention Center that the rest of Behnam Mahjoubi’s sentence could be suspended if he paid an impossible 200 million toman bail.
In recent days, many journalists and activists have called the death of Behnam Mahjoubi nothing less than "murder under torture" and "political murder”. The judiciary and the Prisons Organization were aware of the critical threat posed to his life and still took more than seven months to suggest he might be eligible for bail. Their failure of oversight at every turn has now buried him.