Iranian regime security personnel reportedly killed at least eight Ahwazi prisoners who were attempting to flee two prisons. Both prisons are located in the region of Ahwaz in south and southwest Iran. The prison breaks took place on Monday and Tuesday, as panic over the spread of COVID-19 increases amongst inmates, with many more detainees wounded. According to reports from the region, even desperately worried family members of the inmates, who rushed to the prisons after hearing of the events there to find out about their loved ones, were subjected to tear gas and gunfire with live ammunition. Ahwazi activists in the region reported that three family members were severely injured, and many suffered from the effects of inhaling tear gas.
The Ahwazi detainees, many of them political prisoners, in the notorious Sepidar and Sheyban Prisons, both infamous as torture centres, had protested regularly at the lack of basic sanitation and disinfectants and the poor diet there, warning that these provided a perfect environment for the spread of disease. All protests and demands for help to tackle the spread of the disease had been ignored by the regime.
In recent weeks, the inmates in the Sepidar Prison repeatedly pleaded with prison authorities to release them after the COVID-19 virus began spreading through the prison population. Rather than doing so, or even separating the infected prisoners and sending them to hospital, the regime prison officials kept them with the other prisoners in filthy, massively overcrowded cells, guaranteeing the spread of the disease. Although the regime implemented amnesties for prisoners elsewhere to reduce the transmission of the virus, no Ahwazi prisoners were released, with the amnesty apparently applying only to ethnically Persian detainees in other regions.
The prisoners in Sepidar grew more desperate in the past few days as reports circulated of more and more detainees being diagnosed with the lethal virus; rather than considering an amnesty, even for political prisoners, to assuage the detainees’ fears, the regime reacted by deploying large numbers of security forces from other provinces of Iran as a precautionary measure.
Feeling they had no option left but to attempt to escape and knowing that prison personnel would not hesitate to shoot and kill them, the desperate prisoners in Sepidar Prison set light to blankets and other items on Monday in an effort to provide a cover of smoke to reduce visibility before attempting to scale the prison walls. This failed to stop the security forces who stormed the cells firing tear gas and live ammunition, killing at least three of the prisoners in the resulting chaos and wounding many more.
Already worried family members who rushed to the prison after hearing reports about fires there and heavy gunfire were brutally beaten by regime security personnel stationed around the prison perimeter, as well as also being tear-gassed.
Aaron Eitan Meyer, an attorney, researcher and analyst, said, “Despite explicit promises to release political prisoners, the humanitarian release excluded Ahwazi prisoners. Sheyban prison is filled with Ahwazi political prisoners, and there have been consistent and growing reports of deaths among prisoners, almost certainly attributable to Coronavirus. These political prisoners are already paying the price for institutionalised anti-Arab racism, which is already at an all-time high, and which has become increasingly visible given the glaringly unequal treatment during this pandemic crisis. Human rights organisations, both domestic and international alike, must prioritise the rights of these prisoners; their own stated purposes demand immediate and sustained advocacy on behalf of these already-abused prisoners. And to the regime itself, I would directly add that pretending that Coronavirus has not already begun to run rampant through the country would be laughable if it was not so horrific, and ignoring certain types of political prisoners is not going to be tolerated.”
Similar horrific scenes were reported at the equally afflicted Sheyban Prison in the regional capital today, with desperate political prisoners who had protested at the prevalence of Coronavirus and the denial of any amnesty or furlough by prison officials attempting to use the same methods as their peers in Sepidar. Detainees in Wings 6, 7, 9 and 10 set fire to their cells and attempted to break down the first gate of the prison infamous for its torture and ‘disappearance’ of political prisoners; the authorities reacted by shooting and killing five prisoners at point-blank range, as well as wounding many more. Once again, detainees’ family members, who were already frantically worried about the spread of the Coronavirus there, and other horrified locals, rushed to the prison after hearing reports of the heavy shooting, fire and billowing smoke engulfing the jail; the family members’ pleas for information about their loved ones were greeted with indiscriminate gunfire, with a few of the relatives wounded.
One of the mobile phone videos published here shows one of the Ahwazi detainees’ distraught mothers outside Sheyban Prison screaming and weeping for her son, whilst another shows prisoners’ bodies being transferred via ambulance from the prison.
New York-based human rights lawyer Irina Tsukerman responded to the harrowing videos of the burning prisons and the gathered families, crying and screaming: “The failure of the regime to take any action to ameliorate the plight of the Ahwazi prisoners of conscience in light of the spreading pandemic led to this horrific tragedy. After being given explicit promises of release, these unfortunate people, who have done nothing wrong other than engaging in political activism and defending fundamental human rights, were left to die with no resources in closely confined unsanitary conditions.”
“They tried desperately to save their own lives by escaping from prison; the regime’s ruthless actions against them and their families show that the regime once again, instead of just letting them go, put political considerations and fear and hatred of the Ahwazi population above any humanitarian concerns and its own duties to take care of its prison population.”
“Instead of accepting humanitarian aid from Doctors Without Borders and from the United States, the regime is leaving the most vulnerable people to die of illness, infectious diseases, and other preventable causes, while they are weakened by malnutrition, torture, and prolonged confinement.”
“Rather than investing into cleaning up and upgrading prisons to make sure that individuals serving their sentences are treated humanely, and to stop the spread of the infection that can easily carry to the staff and then outside to the rest of the population, the regime apparatus reportedly raided its own coronavirus fund and embezzled over $1 billion that should have gone towards prevention of the pandemic.”
“And now it is punishing the prisoners for its own cruelty, incompetence, and inaction by shooting at them and their families with live bullets, and beating anyone who is trying to help these Ahwazi political prisoners save their own lives. Meanwhile, once again, the international media and human rights organisations are complicit in these gross violations of international norms of treatment of prisoners by ignoring or covering up these developments, and thus giving credence to Iranian propaganda about its success in the battle against the Coronavirus. And to the extent, these concerns are ever published, they are toothless and put no pressure on the regime to change its policies.”
Only last week, Amnesty International issued a statement expressing grave concern over the wellbeing of detainees in light of the coronavirus pandemic, including Ahwazi political prisoners in Sepidar and Sheyban Prisons, urging the Iranian regime to free the prisoners unconditionally without imposing heavy bail conditions which poor families are unable to meet. On Monday and Tuesday, the regime, whose leaders are keen to complain about the supposed humanitarian suffering caused by US sanctions, showed its usual monstrous indifference towards any Ahwazi’s wellbeing.
In the words of an Ahwazi dissident and writer now in exile who was previously detained and tortured for his human rights activism, “The regime’s murder of these poor prisoners shows that the only way the regime wants Ahwazis to leave its prisons is in a coffin.”
By Rahim Hamid, an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. Hamid tweets under @Samireza42.