As Iran announced that about 54,000 prisoners would be temporarily released to reduce the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) in overcrowded prisons, Sunni prisoners of conscience at Rajaei Shahr Prison in Karaj issued an open letter expressing concern over the virus, warning of a catastrophe and calling on human rights organizations and international organizations to take action.
More than 100 detainees held in wards 11, 21 and 36 at Rajaei Shahr Prison highlighted the inadequate sanitary conditions at the prison, and the high possibility of prisoners contracting the virus. They urged international bodies, and in particular the World Health Organization, to prevent what they labeled "the possibility of a deadly catastrophe due to coronavirus in the prison.”
The prisoners, most of them who have been jailed for their activism to support Iran’s Sunni Muslim minority, call for Iran to uphold international law and recognize world conventions, stating that they hold the judiciary, the Prisons' Organization, and the security forces responsible for protecting their lives. The prisoners say these government bodies will be held accountable for any serious incidents that occur in the prison as a result of Rajaei Shahr Prison officials’ failure to take precautions to protect prisoners. They say a number of inmates are showing flu-like symptoms.
The letter also refers to the high concentration of prisoners in Rajaei Shahr Prison, and expressed concern that prisoners and prison guards were continuing to move around the prison without taking any precautionary measures. "They go inside the halls without wearing gloves and masks. This is worrying because the guards change every 24 hours and they are in contact with people outside the prison and can carry the virus inside the prison."
Sunni inmates have also demanded they be supplied with masks and gloves, as well as disinfectant gels and alcohol, adding that so far their demands have been completely ignored. There is very little detergent or soap available in the prison, they say.
In addition, the letter says nothing is being done to protect prisoners with pre-existing medical conditions, including AIDS and hepatitis, and whose lives will be in serious danger if they contract coronavirus. "There are no proper measures to disinfect these prisoners or prevent them from being in contact with one another. Many Sunni political prisoners have repeatedly requested leave and temporary release to be with their families, but even though some of these prisoners have less than a few months until the end of their prison term, their demands have not been met."
The prisoners’ appeal follows extensive reports of coronavirus outbreaks in Karaj Central Prison, Greater Tehran Prison and Evin Prison, including in wards where political prisoners are currently held. Gonabadi dervish prisoner Saeed Soltanpour, held at Karaj Central Prison, told IranWire that he and other prisoners were transferred to another ward to accommodate prisoners with suspected coronavirus.
In addition, Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of jailed Iranian-British political prisoner Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and the Free Nazanin campaign said that they feared she had contracted the virus “in large part due to the lack of hygiene materials made available to the prisoners” and said prison authorities had refused to test her. The lawyer for Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American also incarcerated at Evin, says his client is at “serious risk” of catching the virus.