Abdorrahman Boroumand Center

for Human Rights in Iran


“The international community must put pressure on Iran to release all political prisoners for six months, with tougher security measures such as ankle bracelets if necessary, so that they can be with their families, protect themselves, or get medical care if they get sick.”

-Shahla Jahanbin, summoned to serve a 27 month prison term for signing a letter calling for the resignation of Iran’s Supreme Leader.[1]

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to grip Iran and its prison system,[2] with outbreaks and deaths reported in facilities across the country, judicial officials are summoning people to serve even minor sentences for crimes that are not recognized in international law. Individuals have been sentenced to prison and jailed for “promoting the Baha’i faith,” for “propaganda against the regime,” for participating in protests, or writing critical tweets. Their punishment, as specified in court rulings, is deprivation of liberty, not infection with a deadly virus from which the state fails to protect them.

Political prisoners, human rights lawyers and defenders, journalists, artists, conservationists, and others subjected to politically motivated imprisonment do not pose a threat to society. The Islamic Republic authorities have no justification for requiring them to serve or remain behind bars in the middle of a pandemic, while prisons endure an unprecedented health menace and overpopulation with scarce resources, unless the real objective is to punish them with illness and death.
In April 2020, as the COVID-19 epidemic caught fire in Iran, Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran (ABC) published a report detailing how widespread overcrowding and unhygienic conditions - the product of systemic underfunding of the prison system and a harshly punitive, incarceration-centered approach in criminal law - left prisoners vulnerable to the new health threat. ABC urged Iranian authorities to abide by the best practices for persons deprived of liberty formulated by the World Health Organization and Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. A key recommendation of these bodies and other international experts is the mass release of prisoners, including those held for crimes not recognized by international law. ABC’s report also detailed how preventive protocols announced by the judiciary at the beginning of the pandemic, including regular disinfection and temporary furloughs for certain classes of prisoners, had been implemented haphazardly. In a September 2020 follow-up report, ABC shed light on the fact that these measures had been abandoned at many prisons across Iran. Prisoners had little or no access to disinfectants or hygiene basics like soap and hot water.
Iranian denials and threats to prisoners to stop the reporting will not address the serious problems prisons face. The impact of the state’s failure to protect prisoners’ rights during the pandemic was tragically predictable. The pandemic is taking an increasing toll on prisoners’ health and lives. Late September in Ardebil Prison, two Ward 1 prisoners sentenced for allegedly transporting drugs were only quarantined after their health deteriorated noticeably.[3]
At Rajaishahr Prison in Karaj, where about twenty cases were reported in wards 1, 3, 6, 7, and 10 in early September, 119 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed among the prison population by the prison clinic. These included wards holding prisoners of conscience. As of October 11, at least four prisoners had died in the section known as “Andarzgah 2” because of the disease.[4] 

Most prisoners of conscience in Rajaishahr have been denied furloughs during the pandemic. Among them 61 year-old Baha’i prisoner Farhad Fahandej has already served 8 years of his 10 year sentence. After becoming infected with the virus, Fahandej was simply placed in isolation on October 1 and transferred back to his ward after thirteen days. The prosecutor’s office is reportedly blocking Fahandej’s release despite the recommendations of prison authorities.[5] 

On October 2, a 70-year old prisoner with addiction and lung problems died from suffocation. His symptoms, including cough, had not been noticed by prison authorities.[6] 
Abdolvahid Rahmani, an Afghan national arrested seven months ago and sentenced to five years in prison for belonging to ISIS, died a day after being transferred to Madani hospital on September 28. Mr. Rahmani, held in Hall 11 of Ward 4, suffered from diabetes and heart disease, had been isolated with six others in late September, but was returned to Hall 11 and only transferred to the hospital after his state deteriorated, triggering protests among his wardmates. Another 45 Sunni prisoners were reportedly infected in Hall 11 in September, endangering scores of prisoners in neighboring halls.[7] 

In early October, two female prison staff tending to Evin Prison’s Women’s Ward tested positive and did not report to work, increasing prisoners’ fear of the pandemic. About 40 female prisoners of conscience and human rights defenders are incarcerated or detained in that ward. Prison staff do not necessarily wear masks. Prisoners must buy their own masks and gloves, and share the few hand sanitizers available in the stores.

Nejat Bahrami, a former education ministry official and teacher who suffers from high blood pressure is convicted to one year in jail for “propaganda against the regime” and for “assembly and collusion with intent to disturb national security.” Bahrami was summoned to serve at Evin on May 18, then granted sick leave on June 24.[8] At the time of this first summons, his wife reported that the forensic medical office judged his medical state to be “suitable for incarceration, with observation of hygienic issues.”[9] He returned to prison, where, on September 25, he exhibited symptoms of the coronavirus. On October 7, after symptoms worsened, Bahrami was transferred to the hospital and diagnosed with COVID-19. From the hospital he was sent back to Evin and held in a room of the prison clinic.[10] It was only on October 10, two weeks after his first symptoms appeared, that authorities agreed to release him owing to his COVID-19 infection and unsuitable physical condition.[11] 
Bapir Barzeh, an ethnic Kurd from Chianeh, West Azerbaijan Province, sentenced to two years and six months of prison on the charge of “collaboration with the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan,” reported to Naqadeh Prison on September 22. After contracting the novel coronavirus, he was quarantined for five days before his transfer to a hospital on October 11.[12] This reckless management endangers both infected and healthy prisoners.

On September 25, head of the Hygiene and Medicine Network of Boyer-Ahmad County, Mohammad Yazdan Panah, announced 17 prisoners at Yasuj Prison had been stricken with COVID-19 among a failure to wear masks and a lack of cleanliness.[13] Yazdan Panah stated that the virus had entered the prison by way of two staff members.[14] 

The number of deaths from COVID-19 at Mashhad Central Prison (known also as “Vakilabad”) is unknown, but infections are high. An informed source who told ABC about the death of two prisoners from COVID-19, one while en route to the hospital, noted that stricken patients are transferred to the hospital “only if they are dying.” The source also stated that infected prisoners with less severe symptoms are not necessarily removed from their regular wards. Hashem Bafandeh and two other prisoners had been ill for more than a week before they were taken to the prison clinic and from there to the hospital sometime in April. All three were held in Ward 4’s suleh, an open space metal-frame structure built as an addition to Ward 4. The ward, with a capacity to hold about 600 prisoners, has reportedly held up to 1,800 prisoners during the pandemic.[15]
On September 5, 2020, the Head of Tehran Province prisons reported that 7,000 prisoners were on leave, including 2,100 with six months left in their prison terms.[16] As the prison system struggles with an unprecedented public health crisis and scarce resources, Iranian officials claim to have allowed 95,000 prisoners to go on coronavirus-related leave during the second wave of the pandemic.[17] However, political prisoners for the most part are denied furloughs. Authorities continue to imprison individuals with minor sentences, for offenses which should never have been criminalized in the first place:
  • According to a post on the Writers’ Association’s Facebook page, Mina Rad, a young writer and poet from Dorud (Lorestan Province) who had been sentenced to two months in prison for “propaganda against the regime through participating in protests,” was arrested and sent to Qarchak Prison on September 23, 2020. [18]
  • Yasmin Khanifeh Tabataba’i, a political activist, was taken to Evin Prison on September 27 to serve a one year sentence. She has been convicted for “propaganda against the regime.” She was arrested on her way to join an annual celebration in Pasargad, the capital of the Achaemenid Empire under Cyrus the Great.[19]
  • Shahla Jahanbin and Shahla Entesari were summoned to Evin, according to an October 15 Twitter post by Jahanbin’s husband, Abbas Vahedian Shahrudi. Both women were sentenced to 27 months in prison for signing a letter calling for the resignation of Ayatollah Khamenei.
  • ٍShadman Banibashar, an environmentalist  from Sanandaj, was summoned to serve his six-month sentence in Sanandaj Central Prison on October 11. [20]
  • Samaneh Norouz Moradi was returned to Evin Prison, after October 10 and October 11 hospital transfers, for surgery prescribed by the prison clinic physician for a pilonidal cyst. She was refused hospitalization owing to the fact she was a prisoner. Moradi, who suffers from lupus and a chest infection, was arrested in late summer 2018 and charged with “supporting a group opposed to the regime” through social media activity. She was sentenced to three years and nine months in prison. [21]
  • Ashraf Nafarieh, a student activist, was taken to Evin Prison on October 10 to serve three months, charged with “propaganda against the regime” for her Twitter activity. [22]
  • Afshar Fathi was summoned to Sanandaj Prison on October 10 to serve one year for “propaganda against the regime.” [23]
  • Liza Tabianian, a Baha’i citizen, was called to serve seven months for “propaganda against the regime” for promoting the Baha’i faith at Kachu’i Prison, Karaj on August 15. Tabianian's sentence, issued after she was detained and tried without a lawyer, had been rejected by the appeals court, which stated that promoting the Baha’i faith is not a crime. The Supreme Court threw out the appeals court’s ruling as incompatible with Shari’a. Tabianian was released on October 11. [24]    
These sentences are light by Islamic Republic Judiciary standards; in other words, these individuals are not considered to be a serious threat by Iranian officials. They certainly are no threat to society. Why then, do Iranian officials insist on spending resources to bring and keep them behind bars during a pandemic that has spread in prisons? Why were political prisoners and human rights defenders, most of whom are charged with vague security crimes, excluded from furloughs in the judiciary’s directives, if the authorities’ intent is not to expose them to illness and death?

In light of these developments, as Iran’s prison system - like many the world over - grapples with challenges posed by the COVID-19 threat, Iranian authorities must suspend the implementation of sentences and release all political prisoners, human rights lawyers and defenders, journalists, artists, conservationists, and others subjected to politically motivated imprisonment, and convicted of crimes that are not recognized under international law, while the pandemic rages in its prisons. Iranian authorities should also avoid imprisoning individuals for petty and minor crimes, as recommended in the WHO and OHCHR guidelines, so that prisoners can keep sufficient distance between them, and avoid mass infections. The state is responsible for the health and lives of those it deprives of liberty. Iran has committed to protecting prisoners’ rights. The international community should continue to press Iranian officials for the release of prisoners and hold them accountable for refusing furloughs and medical care and endangering the lives of individuals who do not belong in jail. 

[1]  Interview with Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran, October 16, 2020

[2] On October 20, Mehr News reported COVID-19 deaths in Iran had reached a record-breaking 337 in a single 24-hour period: one death every four minutes (https://www.mehrnews.com/news/5051940). Ministry of Health spokesperson Sima Sadat Lari announced 5,616 new cases, including 2,340 hospitalizations, in a 24-hour period spanning October 20 and 21, raising the country’s official total to 545,286: such figures had not been reported since February. 27 of Iran’s 31 provinces had entered “red status” with regards to the coronavirus outbreak as of October 21 (Tasnim News, October 21, 2020,https://www.tasnimnews.com/fa/news/1399/07/30/2374040/.)

[3] Information received by ABC, September 28, 2020.

[4]  HRANA, October 12, 2020,https://www.hra-news.org/2020/hranews/a-27001/?tg_rhash=22a41dd9689763

[5]  HRANA, October 13, 2020,https://www.hra-news.org/2020/hranews/a-27019/

[6] HRANA, October 3, 2020,https://www.hra-news.org/2020/hranews/a-26863/

[7]  HRANA, October 14, 2020,https://www.hra-news.org/2020/hranews/a-27040/

[8]  IranWire, June 25, 2020,https://iranwire.com/fa/jinac/39753 

[9]  Seda-ye Moallem, May 18, 2020http://sedayemoallem.ir/%D8%AE%D8%A8%D8%B1/item/18815

[10]  IranWire, October 8, 2020,https://iranwire.com/fa/jinac/41865

[11]  Seda-ye Moallem, October 10, 2020,http://sedayemoallem.ir/%D8%AE%D8%A8%D8%B1/item/19705 

[12]  Hengaw, October 12, 2020,https://bit.ly/3lM05pa

[13]  Youth Journalism Club, September 25, 2020,https://www.yjc.ir/fa/news/7503980/

[14]  ILNA, September 26, 2020,https://bit.ly/3nVHdGh

[15]  ABC interview with source with knowledge of Vakilabad Prison, September 9, 2020

[16] ILNA, September 4, 2020,https://www.ilna.news/fa/tiny/news-962853

[17]  Asr-e Iran, August 25, 2020,https://www.asriran.com/fa/news/744018/

[18]  IranWire, October 1, 2020,https://iranwire.com/fa/jinac/41659

[19] HRANA, September 28, 2020https://www.hra-news.org/2020/hranews/a-26794/

[20] Hengaw, October 11, 2020,https://bit.ly/3503FWd 

[21] HRANA, October 11, 2020https://www.hra-news.org/2020/hranews/a-26975/

 [22] HRANA, October 11, 2020https://www.hra-news.org/2020/hranews/a-26971/

[23] HRANA, October 11, 2020https://www.hra-news.org/2020/hranews/a-26983/

[24]  Voice of America, August 20, 2020,https://ir.voanews.com/civil-rights/iran-human-rights-prisoner-bahaei; HRANA, October 11, 2020https://www.hra-news.org/2020/hranews/a-26981/