CSOs express concern at thousands of imprisoned HRDs at risk of Corona virus infection


In early March 2020, the Iranian authorities announced that they would temporarily release approximately 70,000 prisoners to limit the rapid spread of the Corona virus throughout the country. Iranian officials have not provided official lists of those released. Nor have they indicated why some—including human rights defenders and political prisoners—remain behind bars while others around them are granted furlough.

On 17th March 2020, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was temporarily released for two weeks from Evin Prison, where she is serving a five-year sentence, having been convicted on trumped-up charges of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government. Zaghari-Ratcliffe has suffered ill-health throughout her imprisonment and concerns for her wellbeing were heightened following reports that she had contracted the virus towards the end of February.

On the same day, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) expressed its concern about the thousands of human rights defenders at risk of infection in Iranian prisons. GCHR reported that detained human rights defender Narges Mohammadi and human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh have previously been ill in prison, and therefore may face increased risk if they contract the virus.

Mohammadi is serving a combined 16-year prison sentence after she was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for establishing the Step by Step to Stop Death Penalty group (also known as LEGAM), as well as five years for “gathering and colluding with intent to harm national security,” and one year for “spreading propaganda against the system.” Sotoudeh has been sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes on accusations of “propaganda against the state,” for being a member of LEGAM, and “assembly and collusion against national security.”

On 16th March 2020, Sotoudeh and other prisoners in the Evin and Qarchak prisons, went on a hunger strike to protest against the refusal to grant them temporary release. In a letter from prison, Sotoudeh announced the start of the hunger strike and stated, “It is a national need to shut down many wards of the country’s prisons, including the Women’s Ward of Evin. It is a nationalist need for the regime to reconcile with the world and take advantage of their science and technology to deal with the Corona disease.”

In a statement issued on 9th March 2020, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Javaid Rehman, criticised the alarming detention conditions of human rights defenders and political prisoners, including those arrested during the November 2019 protests. They are faced with overcrowding, malnutrition, denial of medical treatment and lack of hygiene; and the use of torture to extract forced confessions is prevalent. Rehman expressed particular concern at the heightened threat posed by the Corona virus to those who are detained in such appalling conditions. The Special Rapporteur therefore urged Iran to temporarily free all human rights defenders and political prisoners.

In March 2020, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Javaid Rehman, criticised the authorities’ unprecedented lethal response to the protests which swept the country in November 2019, and reiterated his call for an independent and impartial investigation of the events and for perpetrators to be held accountable. He said:

“During these protests, authorities used excessive force against individuals protesting fuel price rises and economic hardship, including aiming live ammunition at the head and organs. At least 300 people were killed, including over 20 children, a horrific violation of the right to life that I condemn in the strongest terms.”

It is unknown how many people were arrested in total during the protests in November 2019, or how many remain in prison, but the UN and Amnesty International reported over 7000 protesters arrested, according to official statistics nine days after the protests started.

In his report, the Special Rapporteur also noted that detention conditions do not comply with the Nelson Mandela Rules, nor is due process guaranteed, and he documented widespread use of forced confessions resulting from torture, which is prohibited under Iran’s law.

Iran cracked down viciously against widescale protests that began after a 50% fuel hike on 15th November 2019. Demonstrations also called for an end to corruption, unemployment and inequality. The Iranian Government warned citizens, including by text message, to stay away from protests at risk of arrest. The government’s brutal response effectively ended the demonstrations, unlike in neighbouring Iraq.

Earlier in 2019, numerous women activists and their family members were arrested after they took part in the #WhiteWednesdays campaign against the forced hijab law. The Centre for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) reported that on 31st July 2019, Mojgan Keshavarz was sentenced to 23.6 years in prison, and Monireh Arabshahi and her daughter Yasaman Ariyani were both sentenced to 16 years in prison for protesting the hijab law. The three women were charged with “encouraging people to corruption and prostitution,” “assembly and collusion against national security,” and “propaganda against the state.” Keshavarz was also found guilty of “insulting the sacred.”

On 23rd September 2019, the CHRI reported that Ali Alinejad had been arrested. He is the brother of Masih Alinejad, a leader of the #WhiteWednesdays campaign, who lives abroad. 

As Iran struggles to contain the Corona virus (COVID-19), reports have surfaced that the authorities have been detaining and summoning members of civil society, journalists and members of the public who have taken to social media to criticise the Iranian government’s management of the Corona virus outbreak. According to the Centre for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), several journalists and members of Iranian civil society, including Mostafa Faghihi, publisher of the moderate Entekhab news site, have been summoned by agents of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Intelligence Organisation. They were accused of portraying the country in a negative light in their social media posts and the agents demanded that they support the government’s efforts to combat the outbreak of the Corona virus in Iran.

Last year, during widespread protests, the Internet was shut down across Iran for five days starting on 16th November 2019, and then sporadically, with 95% of the population unable to access the Internet. On 22nd November, four UN experts noted that the Internet shutdown “clearly has a political purpose: to suppress the right of Iranians to access information and to communicate at a time of rising protest.”