Coronavirus is yet again tearing through Evin Prison and two members of the Iranian Writers’ Association have come down with Covid-19, a political prisoner told IranWire in a phone call. Baktash Abtin and Keyvan Bajan were both summoned to begin their six- and three-and-a-half-year sentences in September 2020, while the pandemic was still raging. Abtin was transferred to Tehran’s Taleghani Hospital after his condition deteriorated.
The spread of coronavirus in Iranian prisons has been a major concern for human rights advocates inside and outside the country for the past two years. Non-compliance with health protocols, dangerous overcrowding and low resourcing pose an ongoing risk to prisoners and prison staff’s lives. In Evin, prisoners’ protests escalated after it became known that Baktash Abtin was quarantined in the mosque of Ward 8.
Other writers and journalists including Alieh Motalebzadeh and Mojgan Kavousi were sent on only after contracting Covid-19. Kavousi went on a hunger strike after she was first infected to highlight the lack of medical care.
The prisoner that spoke to IranWire said at least 10 other detainees had shown signs of Covid-19 on Ward 8. “I heard from the guards that the situation in other wards is the same as ours,” they said. “For almost a week here, people have been catching it one by one. Even some of the guards have been infected and gone on leave. The atmosphere inside the prison is very scary. We don’t know how to take care of ourselves. Medical provision is limited to a few pills and dexamethasone injections; they’re even refusing to give IV drips.
“Baktash Abtin has had Covid-19 symptoms since last week. He was taken to the prison doctor several times; even though Abtin's temperature was over 39 degrees and he was short of breath, they still tried to treat him with a few pills. Finally on Sunday, they took him to Taleghani Hospital. His wife and family were not informed. Yesterday, when we found out, we told his wife on the phone.
"Baktash has several underlying conditions and has been taken to hospital twice [before] for chronic pain, weight loss, and high blood pressure. These underlying issues have made his condition worse than that of other prisoners infected with virus. Some of his friends and I, after seeing his yellow face and his constantly falling unconscious, shouted and caused a ruckus so his interrogator would have to agree to transfer him. Any doctor with a conscience would order the release of prisoners and a cleanse of the wards.”
Baktash Abtin is a poet and filmmaker, Keyvan Bajan a writer and journalist. They and fellow Writers’ Association member Reza Khandan Mahabadi were first arrested – and finally jailed last year – for such grievous “offences” as having compiled a 50-year history of the Writers' Association, publishing the Association's statements, attending the tombs of intellectuals and victims of the chain murders Mohammad Mokhtari and Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh, and marking the 20th anniversary of the death of poet Ahmad Shamlou. Branch 28 of Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced Abtin and Khandan to six years in prison each, Bajan to three years and six months, in March 2020.
In October this year, PEN America conferred on the three its annual PEN/Barber Freedom to Write Award, calling them “beacons for countless authors and thinkers whose ability to imagine, push boundaries, and challenge repression under the most dangerous conditions is fed by the knowledge that they do not stand alone.”