Over the last two weeks, the situation for political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Evin Prison has become critical as Iran continues to be badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
Inmates and their families have raised alarm over the unsanitary conditions at Evin and at other Iranian prisons at a time when hygiene protocols and social distancing continue to be highlighted as key measures to prevent the rampant spread of Covid-19. Prisoners are denied appropriate medical attention, even when they have been diagnosed with coronavirus or show symptoms of having contracted the virus.
Families have also objected to the practice of placing prisoners jailed for political “crimes” on the same wards as dangerous criminals, who in some cases have been violent toward them, including recently.
The Islamic Republic has also stepped up its practice of forcing political prisoners to confess to their crimes in front of television cameras, with several prisoners having recently been profiled on Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting’s program 20:30. The program has sent its staff armed with cameras into prisons, recording selected prisoners stating that there were no cases of coronavirus in prison, that they were being kept in acceptable conditions and had not faced violence from fellow inmates or prison guards.
On 12 August, a reporter for the television program 20:30 reporter arrived at Evin Prison to film. Viewers saw a clean environment where prisoners appeared to have ample space to move around and where social distancing could be observed. A man is seen disinfecting halls with a sprinkler and says he does it three times a day. The reporter enters different rooms and, each time, the prisoners unanimously confirm that everything is fine and they have no problems to report.
When the 20:30 report is about halfway through, the voice of Gonabadi dervish Behnam Mahjoubi, a prisoner of conscience at Evin Prison, can be heard — or at least that is what the presenter says.
Since the filming, the reporter has claimed that he offered his documentary to Persian-language media outside Iran, an attempt to show the outside world that Iran’s prisoners were being humanely treated. But he says, instead of showing the footage, the “enemy media” took it and “destroyed” it.
Five hours after the broadcast of the program, Behnam Mahjoubi's family announced on Instagram that the voice heard on 20:30 and attributed to Mahjoubi is not his voice. Furthermore, the family said what Mahjoubi apparently says on the film bears no relation to anything Behnam Mahjoubi would have actually said.
In response, the family released their own clip of Behnam Mahjoubi speaking. "I have talked to officials who mention social distancing,” the voice, which sounds nothing like the voice heard in the 20:30 documentary, says.
“You do not need to bring in a camera and arrange filming in advance at the jail,” he continues. “Because there are cameras everywhere, even in the bathrooms. There is nothing even resembling privacy here.” He then adds, with bitterness: “You will see very beautiful social distancing on the cameras in the three-by-four-foot rooms where 17 or 18 people sit on top of each other.”
Mahjoubi then talks more specifically about what it has been like in prison since the outbreak of coronavirus. "We have to wait for masks to be stocked in the prison store so we can buy them," he says. "I won’t say anything about the people who do not have the money to buy them. A small bottle of alcohol for sanitizing is available at the entrance — it’s for 180 people.” Then the Sufi prisoner addresses the people who made the 20:30 film. “One question. Is our health important to you? Or was this all a propaganda game, something you could send to whoever you wanted to?”
He adds that he doesn’t recognize the prison on the documentary. “Even though we are in the film, it seemed as though we are in prison somewhere other than Iran. Let me tell you about the doctors. Some inmates had a fever, one of the coronavirus disease symptoms. They took his temperature with a thermometer. We asked: why didn’t they disinfect the thermometer? They said their devices did not given accurate temperatures and that it was just a formality. We said that three of our fellow inmates have Covid-19 symptoms and were not feeling well. They said, ‘tomorrow.’ It is not known when tomorrow will come. [...] This is a prison, but a prison like nowhere else, a place where the least important thing is human lives."
On Instagram, Behnan Mahjubi’s family said: "We published Behnam's voice in this post, and it is clear that, contrary to what the 20:30 program shows, health conditions in the prison are unsatisfactory. And, after the broadcast of 20:30, Behnam Mahjoubi was in the middle of a phone call, and the line suddenly went dead."
Why Did 20:30 Take Cameras into Evin Prison?
Two days before the 20:30 show was aired, it was reported that a number of political prisoners, prisoners of conscience and people held on national security charges held on Ward 8 of Evin Prison had been infected with coronavirus. Among them was Jafar Azimzadeh, secretary of the board of directors of the Free Workers’ Union, Esmail Abdi, member of the Teachers' Union, lawyer Amir Salar Davoudi, journalist Majid Azarpey, and Mohammad Davoudi. On the morning of August 12, when the 20:30 program was about to be broadcast, Tanaz Kolahchian, Amir Salar Davoudi's wife, wrote on Twitter: "According to the verbal statement from the director of Evin Prison, Amir Salar Davoudi’s coronavirus test was declared positive."
Prior to this, Esmail Abdi's wife, Munir Abdi, had announced that prisoners suspected of having Covid-19 had been transferred to Evin Prison Medical Center.
On the morning of August 12, journalist Majid Azarpey and Ali Divandari, the former CEO for Mellat Bank and Pasargad Bank, who had been imprisoned on charges of financial corruption, were released on a temporary basis, or furloughed.
On July 31, 12 days before the 20:30 prison “special,” Amnesty International announced it had been given four letters that revealed that senior officials from Iran’s Prisons Organization had called on Iran’s Ministry of Health to give them more funding to cope with the spread of Covid-19 and treat inmates who have contracted or shown symptoms of the disease. The prison officials said the ministry had not sent it medical equipment and other supplies that could help curb the outbreak. The ministry has so far ignored the requests.
In the 20:30 film, a full bottle of sanitizer or dishwashing liquid can be seen in full view, so-called evidence that prisoners were being kept in hygienic conditions and an apparent response to the Prison Organization’s claims and Amnesty’s calls for immediate action.
At one point, the two men presenting the film don’t even appear to know what the premise of the film should be. He asks one of the prisoners: “Is this really the normal prison? Or have you set this up?”
A Huge Prison Population
In the early days of Iran’s coronavirus crisis, Iranian authorities granted temporary release to thousands of inmates to prevent the spread of coronavirus throughout the prisons, though very few political prisoners were granted leave. However, says Roya Boroumand of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran, this effort to reduce crowding in prisons had little effect. “By the time the virus subsided a little bit in May and June, they started to call prisoners back from furlough and they stepped up the new arrests.”
For years, she said, campaigners and prison officials have warned that until Iran’s penal code is reformed, crowding in prisons is always going to be a problem since so many offenses in the country are punishable by prison. “In the spring, they arrested 7,702 drug users in Tehran, and they have to put them in overcrowded prisons. And there's no hygiene. There's very little information about [what's going on], and people are really scared.”
The Abdorrahman Boroumand Center joined together with the Human Rights Activists News Agency to raise awareness of what is happening in prisons, but also to find out more, because, as Roya Boroumand says, it’s hard to know how many people are actually sick in Iranian prisons and among political prisoners.
“We need to put pressure on Iranian authorities to actually release more political prisoners or improve the prison conditions for everyone, because Iranian authorities have basically been congratulating themselves about the success of the measures they took initially, and they are saying that these measures are a model regionally and for the world. And then they do a lot of reporting on Covid in American prisons..."
When Did the Crisis in Ward 8 Begin?
On 30 July, Behnam Mousivand, a civil activist imprisoned in Evin Prison, was transferred to Ward 8 of the prison as a punishment for protesting against the poor conditions in the prison. For several days, Behnam Mousivand and Behnam Mahjoubi were kept on Ward 8, which is usually dedicated to people found guilty of financial crimes. During his time on the ward, Behnam Mahjoubi's physical condition deteriorated and because he had not been given medication, Behnam Mousivand complained to the prison deputy on August 4. He was met with the answer: "Do not do something that will cost you your freedom forever.”
But Roya Boroumand says Iran has made a conscious decision to let conditions in prison deteriorate over four decades. Iranian officials might use sanctions as an excuse for a lack of hygiene or proper equipment, but she believes it’s a mistake to conflate sanctions and prison conditions. “The problem with prisons is that they're 40 years old. The Prison Organization has constantly said it doesn’t have money for the number of people arrested, that they owe money to the gas company, to the hospitals, to the water company, and that's why they lack electricity and water and water pressure, because they're not paying their bills. And this has nothing to do with the sanctions. This has been a problem for decades. Obviously sanctions are hurting Iran's economy, they are making resources scarce. But the way existing resources are used is a choice by the Iranian leadership. If they choose to build a golden shrine in Iraq or if they choose to give money to tens of thousands of foreign students so that they study Shiism, it's a political choice. If they prefer that prisoners die, it's a political choice.”
The day after Behnam Mousivand complained and was threatened by a prison authority, Behnam Mahjoubi went on a hunger strike, and his family joined him.
Then, on August 5, inmates beat the two political prisoners and threatened Behnam Mousivand. “We will hit you from behind so hard that you will never get up again," they told him.
On August 6, several political prisoners, including Esmaeil Abdi, staged a sit-in protest. The next day, Behnam Mousivand and Behnam Mahjoubi were transferred to a section in Ward 8 for political prisoners and prisoners of conscience.
However, the transfer coincided with the news that a number of inmates in the ward had contracted coronavirus, prompting well-known activist and human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh to announce that she had gone on a hunger strike to demand the release of political prisoners. Like the campaign led by the Boroumand Center, she hoped to get a response from the Iranian government, the prison authorities, and the international community.
Five prisoners in Ward 8 also went on hunger strike: Behnam Mahjoubi, Mahmoud Alinaghi, Hadi Mehrani, Abtin Jafarian, and Yasin Jamali.
After their announcement to strike, the head of Ward 8 threatened to send the five prisoners to solitary confinement, and told them, "The 20:30 program will be broadcast tonight.”
IRIB’s cameras were set up to paint a picture to the world of clean, orderly prisons and to justify Iranian authorities’ handling of the coronavirus crisis. And yet 20:30 has made a name for itself as a propaganda tool, producing material that is sometimes more believable than others. The program’s ambitions and content have been transparent for some time, and it’s known as a regular broadcaster of forced confessions. As Roya Boroumand says, "They have fooled some people. But I think at this point, the number of people who believe this masquerade are fewer and fewer."
In some cases, prisoners have identified some of the show’s reporters as being their interrogators while in prison. The family of Kavous Seyed-Emami, an academic and environmental activist who died mysteriously in prison in February 2018, are among those who have reported the bizarre reporter-cum-interrogator role. Ruhollah Zam, the administrator of the Amad News channel, who has been handed down a death sentence for his reporting on protests, appeared on television being asked questions by a reporter who had the distinct manner of an interrogator.
More and more, the program seems to be an outlet that scrambles to respond to the news, or to to human rights activists’ revelations about crimes committed by authorities against members of the public, or to people sharing information on social media.
When the hashtag #Do_Not_Execute was used by millions on Twitter, it provoked a response from the Human Rights Headquarters of Iran’s judiciary. When the hashtag and the campaign to save three young men from death continued into a second night, 20:30 described it as a movement launched by “enemies.”
People also used the hashtag #Be_Voice_of_Narges to support jailed human rights activist Narges Mohammadi after her children published a video calling for the public to be their mother’s voice and to protest against the ban on Mohammadi’s right to communicate with her children on the telephone. 20:30 employees showed up with their cameras at Zanjan prison where Mohammadi was being held, filmed a doctor taking her temperature and the activist saying, "I am fine.” This followed the news that Mohammadi might have contracted coronavirus along with a number of other prisoners while she had been held at Gharchak Prison.
Manouchehr Bakhtiari, the father of Pouya Bakhtiari, who was killed in the November 2019 protests, announced that he will also go on hunger strike, joining a growing group who have described the Iranian regime’s mishandling of the coronavirus as a new form of torture and use the hashtag #Torture_With_Coronavirus. Among the issues the hashtag highlights are the 20:30 program and its targets.
Today lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and five other political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Ward 8 of Evin Prison are on a hunger strike. Following the broadcast of the 20:30 program on national television, six other prisoners said they intended to join the strike.
Prisoners continue to face a coronavirus crisis, but journalists and independent media are not allowed to enter the prison to investigate their health and prison conditions. It’s only 20:30 cameras that are allowed inside the prison, given full creative license to write the script, turn on the camera, label prisoners as liars, attack the Persian-language media outside Iran, and prepare a report suitable for their employers, the regime of the Islamic Republic.