In a news conference on March 15, Gholamali Mohammadi, head of Iran’s Prisons Organizations, claimed that Iranian prisons “are fit to be presented to the world”.
The Iranian prison system, he said, qualifies because of “its treatment of prisoners, its respect for prisoners’ rights and dignity, prison conditions, cultural and educational programs, job training for inmates, sanitary conditions in the prison environment, special attention to women and children, benefits such as pardons, leaves of absence and access to phone lines.”
Mohammadi said that his claims were supported by “all foreign delegations who have visited Iranian prisons” and accused the “enemies” of the Islamic Republic of smear tactics and of “making a mountain out of a molehill” to present a distorted picture to the people and to the world.
Are prisoners’ right respected in the Islamic Republic of Iran? Are conditions in Iranian prisons consistent with international standards and are they rated favorably? Can international monitors freely inspect prisons in the Islamic Republic and have they confirmed that these prisons meet minimum standards?
“Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners” was first adopted on August 30, 1955, during a UN Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, held at Geneva, and approved by the Economic and Social Council in resolutions of July 31,1957, and May 13, 1977.
The resolution identified 95 rules that it considers the minimum requirements in the treatment of prisoners by member countries, including: registration of information about the prisoner, separation of prisoners according to types of crimes, criminal record, gender and age, accommodations such as sleeping conditions, lighting, ventilation and hygiene facilities, personal hygiene, clothing and bedding, food, exercise and sports, medical services, discipline and punishments, instruments of restraint, information to and complaints by prisoners, contact with the outside world, access to books, freedom for religious rituals, retention of prisoners' property, notifying families of death, illness, transfer, and so on, rules governing the removal of prisoners, institutional personnel and inspections.
On December 14, 1990, the UN General Assembly approved another resolution titled “Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners”. According to this resolution, member countries have the following duties and obligations:
1. All prisoners shall be treated with the respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings.
2. There shall be no discrimination on the grounds of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
3. It is, however, desirable to respect the religious beliefs and cultural precepts of the group to which prisoners belong, whenever local conditions so require.
4. The responsibility of prisons for the custody of prisoners and for the protection of society against crime shall be discharged in keeping with a State's other social objectives and its fundamental responsibilities for promoting the well-being and development of all members of society.
5. Except for those limitations that are demonstrably necessitated by the fact of incarceration, all prisoners shall retain the human rights and fundamental freedoms set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and, where the State concerned is a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Optional Protocol thereto, as well as such other rights as are set out in other United Nations covenants.
6. All prisoners shall have the right to take part in cultural activities and education aimed at the full development of the human personality.
7. Efforts addressed to the abolition of solitary confinement as a punishment, or to the restriction of its use, should be undertaken and encouraged.
8. Conditions shall be created enabling prisoners to undertake meaningful remunerated employment which will facilitate their reintegration into the country's labor market and permit them to contribute to their own financial support and to that of their families.
9. Prisoners shall have access to health services available in the country without discrimination on the grounds of their legal situation.
10. With the participation and help of the community and social institutions, and with due regard to the interests of victims, favorable conditions shall be created for the reintegration of the ex-prisoner into society under the best possible conditions.
11. The above Principles shall be applied impartially.
Other international conventions such as Convention on the Rights of the Child and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also address prisoners’ rights.
Prisoners’ Rights in the Islamic Republic’s Laws and Regulations
Both before and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the rights of prisoners were specified in a statute titled “Bylaws of Prisons Organization and Security and Educational Measures” in 342 articles. The latest amendments to the statute were approved in 2021 by Ebrahim Raisi, the current president, who was then head of the judiciary. These 342 articles refer to international conventions and UN resolutions. And the rules for conducting arrests and the rights of detainees are specified in the statute titled “Bylaws for Detention Centers”.
So, aside from any possible criticism of individual articles in these bylaws, on paper at least the rights of prisoners are respected in the Islamic Republic. But this raises two questions:
▪ Is the of letter of the law fulfilled in Iranian prisons and are the rights of prisoners respected in practice?
▪ Do Iranian and international investigators confirm that the Islamic Republic respects prisoners’ rights?
Evidentiary Record of How Prisoners are Treated in the Islamic Republic
The gates of Iranian prisons are not open to Iranian and international monitors so they are unable to report what goes on in prisons of the Islamic Republic. Therefore, the sources of all information about these prisons are inmates themselves, leaked documents, occasional visits by members of the Iranian parliament and interviews with civil rights activists that have been arrested and imprisoned and have personally experienced life within Iranian prisons.
The fact that Iranian prisons are closed to reporters is not a secret. Even Raisi, as head of the judiciary, implicitly confirmed this when, in a meeting of the Supreme Judiciary Council on February 15, 2021, he said: “We are ready to open the doors to our prisons so that those who claim to be supporters of human rights can visit any prison in Iran that they want to see, provided they let us visit any prison that we want to see in their own countries.”
This is a clear confession that Iran’s prisons are not open to monitors from outside and, despite repeated requests, UN special rapporteurs on human rights in Iran have never been granted permission to visit these prisons and speak directly with inmates and civil rights activists.
The Committee for the Defense of Prisoners' Rights is an Iranian NGO dedicated to defending the rights of prisoners in the Islamic Republic of Iran; but, Tehran’s prosecutor closed their office in September 2009, confiscated documents and computers and arrested Emadeddin Baghi, head of the committee, to stop their activities and reports.
In its report for 2006, the committee reported the following findings:
▪ The manner in which arrests are conducted are not lawful and rules are not observed.
▪ Article 32 of the constitution of the Islamic Republic states: “No person may be arrested except according to and in the manner laid down in the law. If someone is detained, the subject matter of the charge, with reasons (for bringing it), must immediately be communicated and explained in writing to the accused.” And Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights declares: “Anyone who is arrested shall be informed, at the time of arrest, of the reasons for his arrest and shall be promptly informed of any charges against him.” But many arrests in Iran do not observe these rules.
▪ Contrary to the strict letter of the law, many detainees are in abeyance. They are either under temporary arrest in solitary confinement or are kept in communal wards among convicted criminals. This situation has created many problems not only for the detainees and their families but also for the Prisons Organization.
▪ In most of the arrests, the detainees have been denied the right of communicating with their families and of consulting a lawyer.
▪ There are many reports of nighttime interrogations, the jailing of prisoners into the prison ward while in chains, blindfolding of prisoners, and so on; all practices that are contrary to the law.
▪ Most prisons in the country lack a youth detention center for prisoners under 18. In the Women’s Prison in Rasht, only a sign that says “Youth Detention Center” has been affixed to a door, but convicted women and young girls are kept in adjoining rooms and mingle together. As a result, professional criminals strongly influence young girls.
▪ Preventable deaths in prisons are not reported with transparency.
Other findings in the report include lack of space, malnutrition, a shortage of guards, the humiliation of inmates, failure to separate inmates with infectious diseases from other prisoners, absence of HIV tests, drug trafficking in prisons and other issues.
Contrary to the claims made by the head of the Prisons Organization, reliable international organizations also report repeated violations of prisoners’ rights and shortage of facilities in Iranian prisons.
In his report to the General Assembly in 2019, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres referred to many cases in Iran of long detentions without trial, forced disappearances, denial of the right to have a lawyer and forced confessions under torture. “The Secretary-General remains concerned that the continued arrests and treatment of lawyers risks undermining the right to an effective defense and the administration of justice,” the report said wrote.
A report presented to the General Assembly in 2021 by Javaid Rehman, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic, listed many violations of prisoners’ right in Iran, including:
▪ Wards in Gharchak Prison near Tehran lacked basic facilities and its gym does not have an air-conditioning system or a bathroom.
▪ Wards in various prisons are usually filled to overcapacity.
▪ Leaked videos show that prisoners are beaten.
▪ According to reports, many prisoners have been tortured, have been kept in solitary confinement, have been deprived of food and sleep and have been subjected to electric shocks and flogging as groups while naked.
▪ The judiciary does not grant furloughs to those who have been sentenced to more than five years in prison for violent crimes and for crimes against national security. If the sentence is less than five years, the prisoner must have served one-third of the sentence to be granted leaves of absence. The elderly, pregnant women or extremely ill inmates are exempt, provided they have not been sentenced to death and the prosecutor agrees with the furlough. These rules are disproportionately applied to human rights activists, lawyers, foreign citizens and dual nationals, environmental activists, religious and ethnic minorities and prisoners of conscience.
▪ Human rights activist Arash Sadeghi was denied a leave of absence despite suffering from advanced cancer. Reportedly, the prosecutor’s office and the Revolutionary Guards had blocked his furlough.
▪ Reportedly, an assistant prosecutor refused to grant leaves of absence to all those who are considered “political prisoners” in provinces of Tehran and Alborz. According to reports, most of the political prisoners in Tabriz, in Adelabad Prison in Shiraz and in Vakilabad Prison in Tabriz have also been denied leaves of absence.
▪ Reports from central prisons in Karaj, Ilam and Urmia and from Evin, Gharchak and the Greater Tehran Penitentiary (Fashafuyeh) show a failure to distribute hygiene products and to disinfect the prison environment.
▪ In most prisons social distancing for preventing infection by coronavirus is not possible. In Ilam Prison, there are only 40 beds for 130 detainees and only one shower and two bathrooms for each group of 40 inmates.
▪ Vakilabad Prison and central prisons in Karaj, Urmia and Ahvaz have no running water.
In its annual statistical and analytical report for 2021, the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) wrote that 575 reports of violations of prisoner’s rights were registered in 2021:
“Twenty-six of these reports were of physical assault of prisoners, 232 of deprivation of medical care, 136 of illegal transfer to solitary confinement, 131 of attempted hunger strikes, 77 of forced transportation or exile, 246 of threats against prisoners, 26 of banning prisoners from having visitors, 23 of torture, 20 of deaths by diseases. Five arrestees were killed by prison authorities and 5 prisoners committed suicide. There were also 68 cases where prisoners lacked lawyers, 495 reports of prisoners being held in unsuitable circumstances, and 1 case of self-immolation. In this category, there have also been 272 cases of prisoners kept in an unsure state regarding their sentence and 172 cases of keeping prisoner in conditions of indecision.”
The Law vs. Reality of Prisons
Taken together, these reports show that the treatment of prisoners and prison facilities in Iran are a long way from both national and international standards. The Prisons Organization was notified of its new, amended bylaws in the spring of 2021, but repeated reports of violations of prisoners’ rights forced the judiciary to issue a directive to the Prisons Organization about prisoners’ right in January 2022 to at least pretend that the judiciary does not support these violations. But the directive itself showed that the these rights are not respected because there would have been no need to repeat them on paper had they been already observed. The guidelines in the directive include:
▪ The human dignity of prisoners must be respected and their mental and physical conditions must be evaluated.
▪ Except in special circumstances, physical inspection of prisoners without clothing is prohibited.
▪ Detainees must be categorized and separated.
▪ Torture and discriminatory behavior towards prisoners based on gender and their financial means is prohibited.
▪ Aggressive behavior, handcuffing and the cutting of prisoner’s facial and head hair is prohibited.
▪ Special facilities must be provided for female prisoners, pregnant women, mothers and religious minorities.
▪ Preparations must be made for the prisoner to meet with the family and the lawyer.
▪ The feet of the detainees on the way to court, especially those under 18, must not be shackled.
▪ Women must not be forced to wear chadors (headscarves) and facilities for political detainees and detained journalists must be provided.
▪ Pregnant women and mothers accompanied with children must not be put in solitary confinement.
▪ The physical condition of solitary confinement cells must conform to protecting the rights of the detainees.
▪ Detainees must be told their rights.
▪ Comprehensive supervision of the performance of prison guards must exist.
▪ The charter of prisoners’ rights must be displayed in every ward.
It is clear that, on paper, the Islamic Republic's policymakers support prisoners’ rights but, in practice, these rights have been repeatedly violated and continue to be violated. One reason, among others, is that the principle of the rule of law in the Islamic Republic is weak.
According to World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index for 2017-2018, the Islamic Republic of Iran ranks 80th among all countries in world in terms of adherence to the rule of law. But it is even worse when it comes to prisoners’ rights, where Iran ranks 111th. Even among North African and Middle Eastern countries, Iran does not rank highly, and it follows the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco.
To judge the conditions of Iranian prisons, we can only rely on reports. Claims by Islamic Republic officials that prisoners’ rights in Iran are respected must be considered invalid until prison doors are opened to independent observers and monitors and the Prisons Organization publishes a detailed and verifiable report about each prison in Iran.
The Prison Conditions Monitoring Index, published by the Center for the Study of Democracy, specifies what parameters and criteria must be observed in monitoring prisons to arrive at a comprehensive and reliable picture of prison conditions.
Gholamali Mohammadi, head of Iran’s Prisons Organizations, has claimed that Iranian prisons “are fit to be presented to the world”. But in its investigations, IranWire has arrived at the following conclusions:
1. On paper and in the text of the laws, by-laws and official directives of the Islamic Republic, prisoners’ rights and international standards for treating prisoners are officially recognized.
2. The doors of Iran’s prisons are closed to Iranian and international monitors and to the UN special rapporteurs on human rights in Iran and, as a result, no independent, documentary report about conditions in Iranian prisons exists.
3. There are numerous reports based on the testimony of prisoners and civil rights activists who have been incarcerated, as well as on leaked videos and reports, that show large-scale violations of prisoner’s rights and a severe shortage of amenities in Iranian prisons. In response to these reports, the Iranian government and judiciary have amended by-laws and have issued directive but, in practice, violations of these rights continue.
Existing reports about the situation of prisons in the Islamic Republic show that the claim made by Mohammadi, the new head of the Prisons Organizations, to be a "Pinocchio's lie”; a statement that has already been established or proven to be untrue based on existing research and evidence.
You can read about our fact-checking methodology here.
Read other articles in the fact check series: