Abdorrahman Boroumand Center

for Human Rights in Iran


In August 2020, COVID-19 raged throughout Iran and spread inside overcrowded, aging, and unhygienic prisons.  Iran has failed to allocate resources to these prisons, where even locally produced soap and disinfectants are scarce, but has made hundreds of millions of dollars available for funding religious projects, including the reconstruction of holy sites in Iraq.[1] Extravagant projects such as the golden shrine of Imam Abbas, inaugurated in Karbala in August, have gone ahead despite the country’s deepening economic crisis; a crisis that has sparked multiple protests since 2017. Because Iran’s leaders chose to exacerbate overcrowding with more arrests and ignore prison officials’ pleas for additional resources and for criminal justice reform, the pandemic now threatens the health and lives of tens of thousands of prisoners, many of whom do not belong in jail. Iran must take immediate measures in accordance with its international human rights obligations to protect prisoners’ rights to health and life.

In mid August, more than 72 prisoners, arrested during the November 2019 protests went on a two-day hunger strike in the Greater Tehran Prison to draw public attention to the danger they face because of the pandemic and ask for being let out on furlough.  “... The bottom line,” they wrote in a statement, “ is that none of us are criminals, and it is our right to protest. The criminals here are the people behind the price increases and the catastrophic state of the economy. We demanded life, and have been condemned to a gradual death in this place of exile: a place lacking basic facilities for human life...”Lawyer and human rights defender, Nasrin Sotudeh, has been on a hunger strike since August 11, calling for the release of prisoners of conscience whose lives and well-being is threatened by the pandemic spreading because of the poor prison conditions.

Today, protesters, union activists, human rights defenders, and many others held for their beliefs and crimes not recognized under international law, are languishing in jail. They are awaiting their trials or serving hefty prison terms issued after unfair trials. Prison officials have abandoned early spring prevention measures, as per the Judiciary’s directives, after decision makers denied them the essential resources they repeatedly requested.[2] Overcrowding and new arrests are making quarantines ineffective: many prisoners have been infected and some have died. 

“90% of prisoners should not be sent to prison,” according to an Esfahan prison official who laments that the prison population remained steady despite a staggering 6200 furloughs, 1200 early releases, and 1100 pardons since the beginning of the pandemic.[3]

To draw attention to this alarming deterioration, Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran (ABC) is releasing a new report, “COVID-19, Fear in Iran’s Prisons, Summer 2020 Update,” a follow-up to ABC’s April 2020 report. It has also  launched the #SetThemFree campaign to mobilize ordinary citizens, the human rights community, the media, and other stakeholders to shine a spotlight on the plight of the prison population, including prisoners of conscience and human rights defenders. Containing the pandemic in prisons has been a challenge worldwide and not all countries have tried hard enough or been able to prevent the spread of the pandemic inside their prisons. But, unlike Iranian leaders, they don’t boast about the success of their policies and don’t claim their prison policy to be a model for the rest of the world. Iranian officials do not provide no data to support their claim; they also deny access to independent human rights observers, and arrest those who report on the spread of the virus.  The reform of Iran’s penal system, a trap of death and disease, is long overdue. The pandemic should be a wake-up call for Iran’s leaders, rather than an opportunity to make unsubstantiated claims about their achievements. 

Ministry of Justice officials visit a prison in Ardabil Province, Mehr News, March 2020

Iran’s international commitments obligate its leaders to act to prevent more harm to prisoners. They must grant prisons the means to fight the pandemic and proceed to an immediate mass release of prisoners to make social distancing possible and quarantines effective. Reports alone, or prisoners’ hunger strikes, will not motivate Iranian leaders to act. Only sustained public pressure can marshall sufficient will to change Iranian leaders’ course from their deadly trajectory of secrecy and neglect. Economic sanctions have imposed hard choices on Iran’s leaders, and they have made the wrong ones, allocating the country’s resources to non-essential projects rather than protecting prisoners’ rights to health and life. This choice, like the failure to release thousands who do not belong in jail, rests with Iran’s leaders alone. The International community should hold them accountable and press for transparency and independent monitoring of prisons to assess the scope of the pandemic and determine the most pressing needs.

[1] Announcement by the Speaker of the Iranian Parliament of dedicating funding in the government’s budget to the reconstruction of holy places in Najaf and Karbala in Iraq (January, 27, 2016 http://www.isna.ir/news/94110704741/); More than 800 million dollars off this year’s budget has been dedicated to religious institutions and projects (Mardomsalari Online, December 9, 2019, https://www.mardomsalari.ir/report/119736).

[2] Amnesty International, July 31, 2020, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/07/iran-leaked-letters-reveal-state-denial-of-covid19-crisis-in-prisons/

[3] Gorjizadeh, the then Head of Isfahan Province Prisons,  May 10, 2020 (Iran’s Metropolises News Agency, May 10, 2020, https://www.imna.ir/news/422969/)