‘Reza, did you hear how many people got Corona in Evin?”
A chill ran up my spine as I read this message from an Iranian friend on the popular Telegram app. The reference to Evin Prison took me back to one and half years ago when I was imprisoned there for my political activities.
Evin, in northern Tehran, is one of the most notorious prisons in Iran, and it houses many of the country’s political prisoners. From what I knew about its awful conditions, it was very easy for me to imagine how the corona outbreak would amplify the preexisting human catastrophe.
Iran is one of the countries most severely affected by corona. Government aid to the people has been close to zero. And prisoners, especially political prisoners, are defenseless.
I, was 29 years old and an activist with the main Iranian opposition movement, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK) in the summer of 2018, when the Ministry of Intelligence had me and a close friend arrested for installing a banner depicting Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (which includes the MEK as its main constituent organization) on a major bridge in Tehran. After our arrest, we were immediately taken to solitary confinement in Ward 209 of Evin Prison.
I spent months in a 6-meter solitary confinement cell with a dirty carpet, no sanitation, and a constantly dripping tap that sounded to me like the ticking of a clock. It seemed to count down the seconds until the next time I would be taken for a long interrogation, at which point I never knew what fate awaited me.
Interrogations could come at any time, day or night, as could intrusive checks by prison guards. Throughout my detention, I never once had access to the open air of the yard. All this multiplied my sense of limitation, especially in the solitary confinement.
But the general ward was hardly any less limiting. Its population was several times over capacity and there was no hygiene, so disease spread rapidly among prisoners. No cleaning materials were available. The bathroom and toilet were horribly filthy. Meanwhile, sleeping arrangements were determined by prisoners’ categories, their backgrounds, and their types of sentences. Some were forced to sleep in the hallway or even in the bathroom.
Following constant appeals from my family and the payment of excessive bail, I was eventually temporarily released and was miraculously able to leave the country with the help of the MEK network inside Iran. Subsequently a court sentenced me in absentia and my friend to about 20 years imprisonment and forced exile.
That was about 8 months ago. But my soul is still with my friends in Iran, and especially in Iranian prisons. Through their families, I have learned that in recent weeks, Corona reached the prison population, killing several inmates.
Among those prisoners who remain relatively healthy, there is no access to masks, gloves, alcohol, or other disinfectants. Prisoners are maliciously refused transfers to health centers and are falsely told that their corona test results are negative, even when known symptoms like high fever, dry cough, and dizziness are obviously present.
The regime refuses to release, even temporarily, political prisoners, whom it calls security prisoners. At the same time, there are some reports of political prisoners having been identified as corona patients then taken to unknown locations, with no further information being released about their fate.
In recent weeks, prisoners have revolted in at least 10 prisons across Iran. The regime’s response has been more repression, including use of live ammunition against defenseless prisoners. According to Amnesty International, at least 36 prisoners have been killed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in these shootings.
When I heard about the revolts and escapes, I was not surprised at all. Forced to choose between being silently added to the list of corona victims or being openly tortured and executed by the clerical regime, the prisoners chose a third option: rebellion in pursuit of freedom. It is a choice dictated by common sense, and one that other prisoners are sure to repeat, even though some of the recent escapees have been re-arrested and summarily executed.
All Iranians are vulnerable to corona, having been deprived of any government assistance. But prisoners, and especially political prisoners, are particularly vulnerable.
The international community, in particular United Nations, should send international investigative bodies to the regime’s prisons as soon as possible to determine the true numbers of the sick and the disappeared, and to prevent a worse humanitarian catastrophe and a silent massacre in Iran.
The UN Security Council should put pressure on the Iranian regime to free all political prisoners, including those who were during anti-regime protests in November 2019 shortly before the Corona outbreak.
Ignoring these prisoners’ calls for help would only assist the executioners to keep the silent massacre going.
Amiri, an Iranian activist, was arrested in 2018. He was sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment but was able to flee the country in 2019 and currently resides in Europe.