Abdorrahman Boroumand Center

for Human Rights in Iran

"They tell us to wash our hands regularly, but with what?"
In late March 2020, prisoners’ protests and escape attempts in several prisons across Iran drew attention to their fear in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic raging in the country. Prisoners’ panic is justified as, even in the best of circumstances, they are more vulnerable to transmissible diseases than the general population. The best of circumstances does not apply to Iranian prisons where hygiene and  prisoners’ right to health have not been a priority in four decades. The shortcomings in the administration of prisons are rooted in the fact that Iran’s leadership is unconcerned about its responsibilities and prisoners’ rights. Coronavirus has already infected inmates and some prison staff, according to credible reports. Iranian officials blame the prison unrest on social media and the outside world and boast about their achievements. In the meantime, the neglect of prisoners’ health could cost thousands of lives inside and outside prisons; a cost that Iran can and should avoid. The zeal of the Islamic Republic’s judiciary and security apparatus in putting people behind bars far exceeds their respect for Iran’s international obligations regarding the treatment of prisoners (Nelson Mandela Rules). With, according to Iranian officials, more than 1800 acts criminalized in the laws, prisons are always overpopulated. No administration has allocated the necessary budget even to ensure that all prisoners have beds and sufficient water and soap to wash, let alone nutritious food and proper medical attention. The judiciary issues ruling to incarcerate individuals and is also in charge of administering the prisons where they are held. In the absence of independent monitoring, prisoners whose rights are violated by the judiciary must address their complaints to the judiciary; the perpetrator itself. Complaints are most often simply ignored.
“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” Nelson Mandela

International and Iranian human rights organizations, including Abdorrahman Center for Human Rights in Iran (ABC), have expressed serious concerns over the years regarding prisons’ substandard conditions and punitive laws that violate citizens’ human rights and result in prison overcrowding. Since Iran acknowledged the existence of COVID-19 in the country in February, these groups have urged the Iranian authorities to take steps in line with their international obligations to protect prisoners. Since then, the judiciary has released tens of thousands of prisoners (about 100,000 according to official statements) and sent guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus in overcrowded Iranian prisons. However, ABC’s research and collected eyewitness testimonies, compiled in a new report, indicate that the judiciary’s stated preventive measures have been partially and inconsistently implemented. The current state of Iranian prisons is alarming. If prisoners revolted or tried to escape taking the chance of being shot, and scores of them were injured or killed, it is because they remain at serious risk. The prison staff and guards are also at risk and fearful.  Iran struggles like all other affected countries, to fight the pandemic. It also faces the pressure of economic sanctions. “However,” says Roya Boroumand, ABC’s Executive Director, “the scarcity of soap and other cleaning products and disinfectants, or prisons inadequate medical care are not due to the current economic hardship; neither is the fact that prisoners who should be released, or not be in prison in the first place, are still behind bars.” Thousands of lives are at stake inside prisons and in the communities surrounding them. The international community should hold Iran accountable for the violations of its obligations in the treatment of prisoners. It should call on the government to prioritize the life and rights of prisoners in the allocation of the country’s budget and not allow Iranian officials to blame four decades of shortcomings and the judiciary’s lack of transparency on sanctions. Stopping the spread of the virus inside prisons is urgent and feasible. It will, however, require common sense, empathy and - most importantly - political will.

Read ABC's New Report: