Iranian authorities have failed to explain at least 72 deaths in custody since January 2010, a report by Amnesty International has revealed.
The inaction comes even as more than half of the recorded deaths allegedly resulted from torture or ill-treatment by officials. A major spike in deaths in custody was also recorded in 2020, in the aftermath of the November 2019 protests and while Covid-19 was running rampant in Iranian prisons.
“Not a single official has since been held to account for these deaths,” the report states, “reflecting Iran’s long-standing crisis of impunity.”
The deaths recorded by Amnesty occurred at 42 different prisons and detention centres in 16 provinces, including East Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, Sistan and Baluchistan, Tehran and Yazd. In 46 cases, deaths were said to have resulted from “torture and ill-treatment”by intelligence and security agents. Another 15 followed the lethal use of firearms and tear gas by prison guards suppressing inmates’ protests over Covid-19.
Earlier this week, another death in an Iranian prison made headlines around the world. On Tuesday it emerged that Shahin Naseri, a prisoner who witnessed the torture in custody of wrestler Navid Afkari in 2018 and had said as much to the judiciary, had died in Greater Tehran Penitentiary in suspicious circumstances. He had been held in solitary confinement since making the disclosures.
Teenagers, Academics and Ethnic Minorities Among the “Silent” Deaths
In its report, Amnesty listed the names of all 72 people known to have died in custody in Iran since 2010. Where available, it also logged their ages, photos and the date and location of death. The majority were men aged under 30, with three cases involving 18- to 20-year-olds.
The youngest person named was Farshid Nouri, who died in Urmia Central Prison, West Azerbaijan province, in 2010. The teenager’s “suspicious” death was first reported by HRANA news agency that August.
Iranian blogger Sattar Beheshti, 35, was also named in the report. He was taken into custody in Tehran in November 2012 over the political and social content of his blog. A week later, his family were told to come and pick up his body.
Also mentioned was 63-year-old Kavous Seyed-Emami, a prominent environmentalist and professor who founded the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation. In February 2018 the judiciary said he had committed suicide in Evin Prison. This was strongly contested by his family, who called for an independent investigation.
A disproportionate number of the recorded deaths took place in the ethnically-diverse border provinces of Kurdistan, Khuzestan and West Azerbaijan. Amnesty conceded that the real number of deaths in Iranian prisons is likely to be much higher, because of the lack of transparency in Iran’s justice system.
Many such deaths go unreported due to fear of reprisal, with victims’ families often subjected to harassment and intimidation by security agencies. Lawyers have also received threats, and even prosecution, for trying to pursue legal action.
UN: Families Must be Involved, Not Abused
Raha Bahreini, Amnesty’s lead Iran researcher, told IranWire international law on deaths in custody was clear: “A failure to respect the duty to investigate is a breach of the right to life. Investigations and prosecutions are essential to deter future violations and to promote accountability, justice, the rights to remedy and to the truth, and the rule of law.”
Failure to properly investigate a death, she said, could have a “devastating impact on victims’ families... They often remain haunted by a sense of anguish and uncertainty as their questions about how and why their loved ones were killed remain unanswered. Their pain is compounded by the lack of accountability.”
The United Nations’ Minnesota Protocol sets out a series of prerequisites for investigations into any death in custody. At a minimum the authorities must identify the victims, recover and preserve all evidence as to the cause of death, identify and collate evidence from witnesses, and finally determine who was involved and bears responsibility.
Bereaved families, Bahreini added, also need to be closely involved in every stage of an investigation and “protected from any ill-treatment, intimidation or sanction” as a result of seeking information about a death.
In Iran, however, the authorities typically blame deaths in custody on suicide, drug overdose or illness - but often in a rushed manner, without evidence and without a transparent investigation. The judiciary also has a track record of pressuring families to bury their loved ones immediately, before an autopsy can take place.
A “Systemic” Refusal to Pursue the Truth
Amnesty also sounded the alarm about the “climate of impunity” in Iranian prisons that allowed these deaths to be brushed aside. Middle East and North Africa regional director Heba Morayef said: “The authorities’ systemic refusal to conduct independent investigations into these deaths is a grim reflection of the arbitrary deprivation of life by state authorities.”
The same culture informs how prison officials treat inmates. Iranian security and intelligence officials have been documented subjecting men, women and children to floggings, suspension, electric shocks, mock executions, force-feeding and deliberate medical neglect. Recently leaked video footage from Evin Prison showed guards beating and abusing inmates in full view of the CCTV cameras.
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