I have written recently in these pages about the particular threat coronavirus poses to prisoners of conscience, many of whom are already in poor health or held in squalid conditions. The World Health Organisation has stated, ‘People deprived of their liberty … are likely to be more vulnerable to the Covid-19 disease than the general population.’ While thousands of prisoners have been released as a result, many political prisoners remain in detention. In Iran, coronavirus in prisons is chillingly referred to as a ‘passive’ death sentence.
The award-winning writer, journalist and human rights defender Narges Mohammadi (LR, June 2012, March 2016) is reported to have contracted coronavirus in Zanjan Prison, where she is serving a sixteen-year sentence after being convicted on several charges. There have been concerns about her health throughout her imprisonment. Mohammadi has a pulmonary embolism as well as a neurological condition that can result in temporary partial paralysis and seizures.
In May 2019, following a sharp deterioration in her health, Mohammadi was admitted to hospital and underwent an emergency hysterectomy. While in hospital, she was handcuffed to her bed. After surgery, she was immediately returned to Evin Prison, against medical advice, where she was denied the necessary medication. Her surgical wounds became infected and the infection entered her bloodstream. On 13 July this year, Mohammadi wrote from Zanjan Prison that she has symptoms of Covid-19, including coughing, fatigue, diarrhoea and loss of smell, that she has been denied proper medical care and that the authorities are withholding her test results.
The vice-president of the Defenders of Human Rights Center (DHRC), Mohammadi has campaigned tirelessly for the abolition of the death penalty in Iran. In 2011, she was convicted of ‘membership of the DHRC’ and ‘acting against the national security’ after visiting political prisoners and cooperating with Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi. Mohammadi was also accused of generating ‘propaganda against the regime’ for reporting on human rights violations and conducting interviews with foreign media outlets. In January 2012, her eleven-year sentence was reduced to six years on appeal. She began her sentence in Evin Prison on 21 April but was released on bail a few months later after a severe decline in her health.
On 5 May 2015, Mohammadi was once again arrested at her home and taken to Evin Prison. Prior to her arrest, she claimed:
I have been ‘charged’ with every single civil activity I have engaged in since my release from Zanjan Prison in August 2012, such as participating in gatherings on women’s rights, air pollution and [President Rouhani’s] Citizenship Rights Charter. I was also accused of honouring families of political prisoners at meetings, or attending a gathering with Gonabadi Dervishes in front of the Prosecutor’s Office, or giving interviews to media outside Iran. I told them there that when you fit all my civil activities into these two charges, it means that I must remain silent and still.
A year later, in May 2016, the Revolutionary Court of Iran convicted Mohammadi of ‘founding and running an illegal organisation’ (a reference to her role in the anti-death penalty campaign Legam), ‘taking part in assembly and collusion against national security’ and ‘spreading propaganda against the system’ and handed down a sixteen-year sentence. In December 2019, after participating in a peaceful sit-in protest in Evin Prison, she was physically abused by security officials and transferred to Zanjan Prison (three hundred kilometres from Tehran). She was further accused by the governor of Evin Prison, Gholamreza Ziaei, of ‘disrupting the general calm in Women’s Ward by organising gatherings and singing loudly’.
Amnesty International has seen letters from prison officials to Iran’s Ministry of Health, alerting the government to an alarming shortage of protective clothing, disinfectant products and essential medical equipment in the country’s prisons. The letters requested additional resources to help control the spread of coronavirus and treat infected prisoners. At the time of writing, the Ministry of Health has failed to respond. Amnesty believes that Iran’s prisons are catastrophically ill-equipped for outbreaks.
Readers might like to send appeals expressing serious concern for the health of Narges Mohammadi and urging the authorities to provide her with all necessary medical care as a matter of urgency; calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Mohammadi and all those detained for exercising their right to freedom of expression; and demanding a full investigation into reports that Mohammadi is being denied adequate medical care in prison.
Appeals should be addressed to:
His Excellency Hamid Baeidinejad
Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran
Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran
16 Prince’s Gate
London SW7 1PT
Fax +44 207 589 4440
Grand Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei
The Office of the Supreme Leader
Twitter: @khamenei_ir (English language)
President Hassan Rouhani
Pasteur Street, Pasteur Square
Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran
Share messages on social media with the hashtag #FreeNarges.
Update: On 25 July, Azimjon Askarov (LR, Sept 2019), a Kyrgyz journalist and human rights activist, died in prison after contracting pneumonia. Askarov, a member of the ethnic Uzbek minority in Kyrgyzstan, had spent his journalistic career exposing corruption. He was sixty-nine years old and had spent the last decade in prison.