According to information obtained by IranWire, on March 26, 2020, Ebrahim Raeesi, head of the judiciary of the Islamic Republic of Iran called on the Ministry of Health and Medical Education to cooperate with the judiciary in managing statistics released about the coronavirus epidemic and the latest news on coronavirus fatalities.
Raeesi also called for the use of terms other than coronavirus to confirm the deaths of the deceased and has issued instructions to this end.
The moves can be understood as a way for the judiciary to become involved in covering up the numbers of actual coronavirus cases and fatalities in Iran.
Four days later, on March 31, the first session of the Supreme Judicial Council in the Iranian new year was held, attended by Raeesi and the Minister of Health and Medical Education Saeed Namaki. Raeesi used the opportunity to tell the government that if social distancing had been implemented before the Iranian new year, on March 20, the coronavirus could have been brought under control sooner than is now possible.
Namaki also said that officials from several European countries had contacted the Iranian government to ask after Iran’s measures to control the spread of coronavirus.
Statements by members of both the judiciary and the government were recorded and published on social media, after the meeting, but information obtained by IranWire makes clear that during an informal part of the meeting a number of attendees expressed concern over the real coronavirus casualty figures. Estimates suggest that about 7,000 more people have died than has been recorded by official statistics.
This is not the first time that differences between reported and actual coronavirus statistics have been discussed. On March 18, the director of the World Health Organization had reported that the number of people infected with coronavirus in Iran could be five times the official figures. (Official estimates as of April 1 put Iran at over 47,000 cases with more than 3,000 coronavirus-related fatalities.)
On March 29, Mustafa Moeen, head of the Medical Council of the Islamic Republic, in a letter to Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, called for a "transparent" and "honest" report on the number of infected, hospitalized, and deceased people due to coronavirus.
Iranian authorities have issued a series of confirmations and denials since the start of the outbreak and have worked to classify or hide various developments. But some narratives and documents have been published; they show that some death certificates for coronavirus victims have been changed, for instance, or that conditions have imposed on families wishing to reclaim the remains of their loved ones, complete with threats to the families forcing them to lie about the true reason for a loved one’s demise.
One of these families told IranWire [Persian link] they had been threatened by security forces that the remains of a deceased relative would not be returned if they said the relative had died of the Covid-19 coronavirus dsiease. In another example, on the death certificate of Reza Kuchakinia, an Astaneh Health Network physician in Lahijan Province, the first healthcare worker to die because of coronavirus, the cause of death given was as the flu rather than Covid-19.
A photo of a death certificate was meanwhile published by journalist Saeed Maleki on Twitter, in which he wrote that a patient had died of Covid-19 but that the death certificate gave the cause of death as pneumonia.
Information given to IranWire by another family shows that their relative, a 45-year-old man, died from Covid-19 in a Tehran hospital on February 17, before coronavirus was officially acknowledged to have arrived in Iran. Hospital officials nevertheless told the family that they would return the remains only if they pledged to say that the cause of death was anything but coronavirus. The family then falsely wrote in a text message to relatives that a coronavirus test was negative and that the relative who died had suffered heart failure.
The coronavirus outbreak was officially acknowledged in Iran on February 19, when the Ministry of Health and Medical Education said that two fatalities in Qom had died from the Covid-19 disease. Officials had previously denied the outbreak for weeks – calling claims of the coronavirus spread “rumors” and “lies.” But it later emerged that, contrary to their claims, authorities were aware of Iran’s outbreak and had chosen a security crackdown over transparency regarding the spread of a deadly virus. Ebrahim Raeesi, the judiciary chief, now appears to be pursuing similar attempts at a cover-up and with the cooperation of the Ministry of Health.
The judiciary has ordered police and other officials to crack down on individuals allegedly "spreading rumors" about the coronavirus crisis. According to police, more than a thousand "violations" have been identified, resulting in more than 300 lawsuits against people who have written about the virus. The Tehran Prosecutor's Office issued a statement on March 11, announcing that those arrested had been charged with disturbing public opinion.
News also spread in many provinces revealing the detention of tens of people across the country. Iraj Khanipour, deputy commander of the Zanjan police, said that a number of people were arrested for spreading rumors online about the coronavirus crisis.
Hassan Mofakhami, the Markazi Province police chief, also announced the arrest of several people on the same charges.
Ardebil police commander Houshang Hosseini, as well as Shahin Hassanvand, the “cyber police
chief in Hormozgan Province, also said that dozens had been arrested on charges of disturbing public opinion by publishing material about the spread of the coronavirus.
The clashes have not only occurred between the authorities and individual citizens, but also with journalists and citizen journalists, who have been subjected to a security crackdown by the judiciary. Reporters Without Borders issued a statement protesting Iran’s treatment of with journalists and citizen journalists, on March 4, saying that many reporters across Iran were summoned to the Ministry of Intelligence and the Revolutionary Guards intelligence office after publishing coronavirus-related material on social media. Some have also been charged.
Other instances of the Revolutionary Guards suppressing individuals for their coronavirus-related efforts have also occurred since the outbreak was officially acknowledged. On February 19, Gholamreza Jalali, head of the Civil Defence Organization, sent a letter to the chief of staff of the Armed Forces, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and the Interior Minister, indicating that they were aware of the arrival of coronavirus into Iran. An infection specialist told IranWire that the Revolutionary Guards had pressured health personnel and the Ministry of Health to avoid publishing statistics about the outbreak.
IranWire also reported, on February 22, that the Revolutionary Guards through the Ministry of Health security office threatened doctors present at a meeting with Deputy Minister of Health Iraj Harirchi and told them that any information and details of the meeting that leaked would lead to their prosecution. The doctors had said at the meeting that statistics released by the government were not absolutely true.
On March 15, the Mazandaran University of Medical Sciences announced that statistics on patients with coronavirus would not be published to avoid inconsistency in information dissemination and to avoid public anxiety.
And yet despite the overbearing security measures, the arrests and the direct involvement of the Revolutionary Guards in threatening medical staff, the Ministry of Health vowed in mid-February to be transparent in its announcements. On February 3, the Ministry of Health Saeed Nemaki announced in Bandar Abbas that he would hide nothing from the public even if it led to increased pressure for himself.
Two days later, on February 5, Deputy Minister of Health Ali Reza Raeesi denied social media news of the coronavirus presence in Iran and denied that the Ministry of Health had failed to inform Iranians, saying that the ministry had no reason to lie.
On February 16m, Kianoush Jahanpour, Director of Public Relations at the Ministry of Health, stressed that no one in Iran was infected with coronavirus. On February 28, in his Twitter account, Jahanpour accused Persian-language media outside Iran of lying about the statistics of coronavirus infections and Covid-19 deaths, saying that the transparency of the Islamic Republic's information in this respect had left its critics exposed.
A month and a half has passed since the Islamic Republic officially acknowledged the coronavirus outbreak in Iran – with a minimum of 3,000 deaths – and Iran’s official news reports that at least 300 lawsuits have been filed by the authorities against those who have written about the crisis. Threats by security forces, orchestrated by the Revolutionary Guards, have extended to doctors and healthcare workers, after initially trying to intimidate the families of victims. And now the head of the judiciary Ebrahim Raeesi is calling for heavier penalties for those who have published statistics and has pledged the judiciary’s assistance to the government in the crackdown.