Three Ahwazi political prisoners have tested positive for coronavirus in the infamous Ahwaz Central Prison, better known as Shaiban or Sheyban prison, according to the latest reports, and activists in the Ahwaz region of south/southwest Iran are warning that the overcrowding and horrendous conditions in the jail there mean the virus is likely to be transmitted to hundreds more.
According to reports, the three detainees infected with the virus, all in the political prisoners’ section of Shaiban prison in the regional capital, Ahwaz, have been identified as activists Milad Bahglani and Hamid Reza Makki, and photographer Mehdi Bahri.
Despite knowing the dangers of the highly infectious potentially lethal pandemic, prison authorities were reportedly extremely late in isolating and obtaining medical help for the three infected detainees, exacerbating their condition and greatly increasing the risk that they passed the virus on to other prisoners, as well as staff.
Prison authorities have further increased the risk of infection by refusing to test the prisoners who shared a cell with Baghlani and Makki for coronavirus.
Mehdi Bahri, a 30-year-old Ahwazi photographer, was arrested in a raid on his home in the city of Falahiyeh in southern Ahwaz on May 19, 2019, and taken into custody by Iranian security forces before being transferred to the Shaiban prison. He had been active in documenting the devastating flooding that had recently hit the Ahwaz region in videos and still photographs. He played a central role in providing aid for some of the hundreds of thousands left homeless as a result. The justification given for his arrest is not yet clear, with both regime personnel who arrested him and local authorities refusing to provide any information to his family. He is one of the hundreds of Ahwazi volunteer aid workers and activists to be detained by Iranian forces in the last year, with many charged with the ‘crime’ of establishing popular committees to help their dispossessed peers. For Bahri, bail was set at an impossible 600 million toman, which is equivalent to $30,000 US.
A local rights activist told DUSC that while prison authorities had sent one of the three stricken prisoners to a hospital after his health deteriorated, they are still refusing to send the other infected prisoners to a hospital or even to put them in quarantine, further increasing the risk of the virus infecting other prisoners.
Families of political prisoners in Ahwaz have expressed concern over the risk of their loved ones contracting the virus, with relatives imploring judicial officials and local authority personnel, pleading for their release, or simply for any information about their family members’ well-being, but to no avail.
“I went to Branch 12 of the revolutionary court in Ahwaz to follow up on my son’s case, and I found many other families of Arab political prisoners in there trying to see the judge,” said the father of an Arab prisoner arrested in the Kut Abdollah district in Ahwaz during last November’s protest, adding, “Most of the families in the court were there to inquire about the health of their loved ones in prison, with the relatives worried about the risk of coronavirus, but they were not allowed to see the judge.”
One of the lawyers representing a number of detained Ahwazi political prisoners reported that he and some colleagues have demanded that relevant authorities in the Iranian judiciary not imprison any more detainees, especially non-dangerous political prisoners, particularly in Sepidar and Shiaban prisons in Ahwaz, due to Coronavirus concerns.
“We’ve asked the public prosecutor in Ahwaz to monitor the health and safety of prisoners, and to give them access to medical equipment and the guidelines and means necessary to fight coronavirus but so far our demands have been met with complete ignorance and indifference,” said one frustrated lawyer.
Sepidar and Shiaban prisons in Ahwaz have been filled with detainees following the massive anti-government protests last November, like other jails across the country.
The sadism of prison personnel at Shiaban prison is well known to Ahwazis, with the warders taking delight in torturing Ahwazi political prisoners and subjecting them to a stream of racist anti-Arab abuse.
Fearing a coronavirus outbreak in prisons, the families of the prisoners are demanding that the Iranian judicial officials monitor the health conditions in Shiaban and Sepidar prisons.
Another concern troubling activists is the number of female political prisoners being detained in the regime’s jails, especially with a number of cases of suspected coronavirus already reported.
Detainees’ families are also demanding that all political prisoners and other non-dangerous prisoners should be immediately released under the terms of a recently issued pardon, which conspicuously failed to release Ahwazi political detainees and prisoners of conscience. The decree has not included the majority of political prisoners.
Ahwazi rights groups in exile have called on the UN and the international human rights community to save Ahwazi male and female prisoners in Ahwaz alike, who are at risk of contracting coronavirus because the Iranian authorities are not taking even the most basic measures to protect them, while setting impossibly high bail for prisoners knowing that these impoverished families could never hope to raise it, with Mehdi Bahri’s case an all too common example.
International human rights bodies must pressure the Iranian authorities to immediately release all political prisoners and prisoners who have not committed serious crimes in Iran to prevent the spread of the epidemic in prisons.
Speaking about the latest revelations, Raed Baroud, a Palestinian-Scottish activist, voiced disgust at the regime’s callousness and hypocrisy, saying, “The mullahs keep talking about their care for Palestinian prisoners, but they use Palestinians’ suffering as a cloth to wash our Ahwazi, Syrian and Iraqi brothers’ blood off their hands. While nations in the rest of the world are working to save their citizens’ lives in the coronavirus pandemic, Iran’s regime is treating its innocent citizens worse than livestock, imprisoning those who dare to call for freedom and allowing them to die of this terrible disease. Shame on that barbaric regime and on the world that’s complicit in its crimes against humanity.”
The regime just received an additional $20 million in funding from the European Union, even as WHO stated that Iran likely underreported deaths and that the number of people who have died from the illness is likely five times the number the regime has officially declared. In light of these terrible numbers, it appears that the situation in prisons is particularly dire, with no way to isolate sick prisoners such as the three political Ahwazi prisoners who were diagnosed with the illness.
It must be stressed that these three individuals are unlikely to receive the medical attention they need. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe the regime is enforcing necessary precautions of care to stop the spread of the virus inside prisons. Information about the illness is not being disseminated properly, as evident by the recent disinformation about prevention methods in the official media, which resulted in hundreds of Ahwazis getting alcohol poisoning, with many dying as a result of this miseducation.
The recent incident when IRGC hardliners stormed shrines where the infection abounded shows that state institutions value ideology and optics above underlying safety concerns. To this day, the regime elites, including, most recently, relatives of Ali Khamenei, are dying from the illness; so, if the regime cannot keep its own leadership safe, it is quite apparent that the Iranian authorities are not exercising due procedures among the population, much less in prisons. Recent harrowing photographs of gargantuan mass graves which the regime has struggled to suppress point to the fact that the death rate of prisoners, in particular, may be astronomical, but at the same time easy to suppress and deny.
The contagious virus will first and foremost attack individuals already in bad health, in unsanitary conditions, and with compromised immune systems. Many Ahwazi prisoners have lived through torture and other infectious illnesses. They are weakened by malnutrition and infestation of vermin inside the prisons, providing a nightmarishly vulnerable population for the virus to run rampant.
Likewise, virtually no one inside prisons is being tested for the virus, and thus, the scale of the outbreak is impossible to measure or project, much less prevent.
Now, in many states in the US, they have released regular criminals to ensure the illness does not spread around the jail and get the personnel sick, out of compassion and preservation. While that measure might be extreme, and while the US might be better prepared to handle the spread of illness in prisons, the fact that the Iranian regime keeps political prisoners in prisons at this time, knowing full well none of them is a danger to society is preposterous and needlessly cruel.
Indeed, it presumptively speaks to the regime’s intention to use the illness to cull the Ahwazi population rather than a good faith effort to fight the pandemic. Additionally, the regime continues abusing Ahwazi women prisoners, many of whom are unjustly accused of ‘terrorism’ and other security-related trumped-up charges, even as they have no connection to political activism at all or were already serving time on other equally spurious charges at the time of alleged incidents.
Others are nothing more than political hostages used to entrap their husbands and male relatives who are active in peaceful political opposition movements. These women are held in dangerously unsanitary environments, where the chances of contracting infection are significantly higher than outside the prisons, and where medical care is largely meaningless. Many of the doctors in prisons work for the regime and are outright abusive or negligent towards political prisoners, particularly Ahwazis. Others lack the necessary supplies to perform their jobs.
This is yet another reason why no money should go directly to the regime (even as it complains of funding, it keeps financing militias in Syria), and all medical supplies and other humanitarian necessities should be stringently monitored by international organisations to ensure equal distribution among all ethnicities and religious minorities, not just regime apparatchiks ill with the virus and their favoured associates.
As a matter of fact, the regime did not even begin to report the spread of the virus until some of its political elites started getting seriously ill and dying, underscoring how little it cares for its own population. Ahwazis, in particular, are held in the worst regard and are seen as second-class citizens at best.
Iran just turned away Doctors Without Borders instead of allowing them with the spread of the pandemic. Was it perhaps afraid of the discovery of the way it treats the most vulnerable segments of the population? Of the way, Iran uses the pandemic to abuse and ignore the basic needs of prisoners and non-Persian ethnic minorities? Or perhaps uses the illness to eliminate particular political targets, such as the Ahwazi opposition whose very existence is a threat to the regime because they inspire the rest of the region?
All of these possibilities should be promptly investigated because such actions violate all international norms on the treatment of prisoners and certainly are unconscionable in terms of a government’s responsibilities towards providing relief to all of its citizens in the cases of medical emergencies.
Moreover, such incidents should be highlighted in the media, particularly for those in the West who are listening to the regime’s propaganda and pushing for sanctions relief as a mistaken form of humanitarian aid. Lifting the sanctions would only encourage the regime in its wrongdoings elsewhere and do nothing to help the unfortunate prisoners, who, if anything, will suffer even more once the regime feels it has been legitimised by the international community in the way it is handling the pandemic.
Coauthored by Rahim Hamid and Irina Tsukerman
Rahim Hamid, an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. Hamid tweets under @Samireza42.
Irina Tsukerman is an American lawyer and analyst based in New York.