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July 31, 2020 – Leaked official documents newly obtained by Amnesty International reveal that the Iranian government has ignored repeated pleas by senior officials responsible for managing Iran’s prisons for additional resources to control the spread of COVID-19 and treat infected prisoners. The organization reviewed copies of four letters signed by officials at Iran’s Prisons Organization, which operates under the supervision of the judiciary, to the Ministry of Health, raising the alarm over serious shortages of protective equipment, disinfectant products, and essential medical devices. The Ministry of Health failed to respond, and Iran’s prisons remain catastrophically unequipped for outbreaks.
The details in the letters stand in stark contrast to public statements by the former head of the Prisons Organization and current advisor to the head of the judiciary, Asghar Jahangir, who has lauded Iran’s “exemplary” initiatives to protect prisoners from the pandemic, and denied reports of increasing infection rates and COVID-19-related deaths inside prisons resulting from overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and lack of access to health care.
“These official letters provide damning evidence of the government’s appalling failure to protect prisoners. Requests for urgently needed disinfectant products, protective equipment and medical devices have been ignored for months. This is particularly alarming as the letters also note the presence of a highly vulnerable population in Iran’s prisons” said Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“Overcrowding, poor ventilation, lack of basic sanitation and medical equipment, and deliberate neglect of prisoners’ health problems, are making Iranian prisons a perfect breeding ground for COVID-19. The Iranian authorities must stop denying the health crisis in Iran’s prisons and take urgent steps to protect prisoners’ health and lives.”
The head of the health care office of the Prisons Organization first submitted a letter to Iran’s Ministry of Health on 29 February 2020. Four follow-up letters were submitted on 25 March 2020, 12 May 2020, 14 June 2020, and 5 July 2020 and these have been seen by Amnesty International.
The letter dated 25 March 2020 requests disinfectant products and protective equipment to last three months, including “5,400,000 masks, 100,000 N95 masks, 3,600,000 latex gloves, 10,000,000 plastic gloves, 450,000 litres of hand sanitizers and 1,000,000 litres of surface disinfectant, 5,000 face shields, 5,000 protective goggles, 5,000 protective gowns, 300 air ventilation systems and 250 de-infestation machines”. The letter also highlights the urgent need for funding to purchase hundreds of essential medical devices including blood pressure and blood glucose monitors, thermometers, pulse oximeters, stethoscopes and defibrillators.
While the letter does not clarify how many prisons these items and devices are intended for, the figures raise concerns about very serious shortages in prisons across the country.
The letter warns that “security hazards” and “irreparable harm” will result from inaction, particularly considering that Iran’s prisons are “populated with individuals who have pre-existing medical problems, use drugs, and/or suffer from malnutrition, anaemia, and infectious diseases such as HIV, hepatitis and tuberculosis”. It also notes that Iran’s prisons house “older [people], pregnant women, nursing mothers and their infants who suffer from a weak immune system due to their low socio-economic status and hygiene”.
Subsequent letters repeat these requests and note the absence of any government response. In the latest letter obtained by Amnesty International, dated 5 July 2020, a senior official at the Prisons Organization states that they had received no response from the Ministry of Health and asks for an urgent meeting.
On 6 April 2020, Asghar Jahangir said in a media interview that Iran must be recognized internationally for its efforts to protect prisoners during the COVID-19 outbreak, and claimed that prisoners enjoy “better standards of health care and sanitation than they would in society”. He also claimed that medical teams had been stationed in prisons across the country to monitor the health of prisoners daily, and that prisoners who show symptoms are immediately tested and transferred to hospitals outside the prison if the results are positive. As a result, he claimed that there has not even been a single case of COVID-19 related death in prisons.
However, the documents obtained by Amnesty International, together with the information received from prisoners and their families and independent human rights defenders, paint a far grimmer picture.
Amnesty International has received distressing reports of prisoners displaying COVID-19 symptoms being neglected for days, even when they have pre-existing heart and lung problems, diabetes or asthma. When their conditions worsen, many are merely quarantined in a separate section in the prison or placed in solitary confinement, without access to adequate health care.
At least one prisoner who tested positive, Zeynab Jalalian, has been forcibly disappeared since 25 June 2020; she had been on hunger strike from six days earlier over the authorities’ refusal to transfer her to a medical centre outside Shahr-e Rey prison (also known as Gharchak prison) in Tehran province for COVID-19 related treatment.
Sometimes, as seen most recently in the case of ailing human rights defender and prisoner of conscience Narges Mohammadi, authorities have refused to inform prisoners of the results of their COVID-19 tests.
Independent human rights groups with contacts inside prisons have reported more than 20 cases of suspected COVID-19 related deaths in prisons including from Ghezel Hesar prison (2) in Alborz province; Greater Tehran Central Penitentiary (6) and Shahr-e Rey prison (2) in Tehran Province; Urumieh prison (8) in West Azerbaijan province; Kamyaran (1) and Saqez (1) prisons in Kurdistan province; and Sepidar prison (1) in Khuzestan province.
A request by WHO officials to visit Evin prison in Tehran was rejected in March 2020, according to media reports.
Cruel and inhumane conditions
The Iranian authorities announced that between late February and late May 2020, they had temporarily released around 128,000 prisoners on furlough and pardoned another 10,000 in response to the outbreak. On 15 July 2020, as COVID-19 cases spiked again, the spokesperson of the judiciary announced that the head of the judiciary had issued new guidelines to facilitate a second round of leaves.
However, hundreds of prisoners of conscience have been excluded from these welcome measures, including human rights defenders, foreign and dual nationals, environmentalists, individuals detained due to their religious beliefs and people arbitrarily detained in connection with the November 2019 protests. The authorities have also continued to detain unjustly convicted protesters, dissidents, minority rights activists and human rights defenders to begin serving prison sentences. Some prisoners of conscience who had been granted leave in March 2020 have also been called back to prison.
According to recent official statements, as of 13 June 2020, Iran’s prison population was around 211,000, two and half times more than the officially declared capacity of 85,000. In July of last year, Iran’s prison population was 240,000, according to officials.
Other widely documented concerns in Iran’s prisons include lack of proper ventilation and air conditioning facilities, filthy and insufficient bathroom facilities, lack of adequate facilities and products for prisoners to wash their dishes and clothes and maintain personal hygiene, low water pressure in the showers, widespread insect infestations, insufficient potable water and low quality food, and a severe shortage of beds, meaning many prisoners have to sleep on the floor.
Since the outbreak of the virus, in some prisons, prisoners have also complained about the authorities’ improper use of bleach to disinfect surfaces, exacerbating poor air quality and leading to severe coughs, chest tightness and asthma attacks.
Amnesty International has previously documented the Iranian authorities’ deliberate denial of health care to prisoners of conscience and others held in relation to politically-motivated cases, putting their lives and health at grave risk. In some cases, the denial of health care was intended to punish, intimidate or humiliate prisoners or obtain forced “confessions”.
“We once again call on Iranian authorities to urgently address overcrowding in prisons, including by immediately and unconditionally releasing all those detained for the peaceful exercise of their rights,” said Diana Eltahawy.
“They must also consider releasing others, especially children, pre-trial detainees, and those who may be more at risk from the virus. Prisoners must have equal access to COVID-19 prevention, testing and treatment.”
Amnesty International also calls on the Iranian authorities to ensure access to adequate food, water, health care, hygiene and bedding for all prisoners. They should end the use of torture and other ill-treatment, treat detainees with dignity and humanity, and allow international monitors, including the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, to conduct independent, unannounced inspections of prisons in line with international standards.
Since March 2020, the appalling conditions in Iran’s prisons and concerns over the spread of the coronavirus have led to hunger strikes, protests, rioting and escape attempts in prisons across the country. The authorities have generally responded to the protests in prisons violently, using excessive or unnecessary force, and in some cases firing tear gas, metal pellets and live ammunition, resulting in deaths and injuries.