As reports emerge that the Iranian regime is withholding treatment from Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian woman detained in the regime’s infamous Evin Prison in Tehran who’s suspected to have contracted the coronavirus in prison there, an unnamed Ahwazi prisoner in the regime’s infamous Sheyban prison reportedly died of the disease on Saturday. There are no details on the reported death so far, but detainees and activists in Ahwaz have reported that the regime is deliberately exposing detainees there to the virus in what many believe is a deliberate effort to kill them.
The regime’s network of prisons and secret ‘black site’ detention facilities are known and feared by all people in Iran, with the worst abuses there reserved for human rights activists and political prisoners. Ahwazis in the south and southwestern Iran, like other ethnic minorities, face double persecution by the regime, not only for any form of dissent but for their Ahwazi ethnicity.
According to a report from Iran Wire, warders at the regime’s notorious Sheyban Prison, around 25 kilometers from the regional capital, Ahwaz city, are putting prisoners with the coronavirus into already horrendously overcrowded cells where up to 100 prisoners are kept in each cell built to hold ten at most. Speaking about the regime’s decision to put detainees suffering from the Covid-19 virus who should be quarantined in solitary confinement into overcrowded, unventilated cells with many others, an Ahwazi political prisoner there who managed to smuggle out a message told Iran Wire, “The authorities have devised new methods to annihilate us.”
Sheyban Prison is one of the most notorious prisons in Ahwaz. First established under the Pahlavi dynasty, it has also turned out to be a grotesquely useful tool of repression for the theocratic ‘Islamic Republic’ leadership. The prison is infamous amongst Ahwazis, with conditions there more commonly associated with Nazi concentration camps and detainees regularly tortured to death.
Disease is not unusual in Sheyban Prison or other regime prisons; indeed, given the overcrowding and lack of ventilation and sanitation infectious diseases are rife there. Rather than attempting to protect inmates’ lives, the regime apparently regards these dangers, as with torture, as being standard features of prison that can be invoked to deter supposed criminality (including expressing any opposition to the regime); as the supposedly moderate President Rouhani gloated in 2019, “Don’t commit acts that lead to your imprisonment – prisons are filled with diseases.”
The rapid spread of the Coronavirus and the high number of deaths, however, have raised fears among both prisoners and their families that the disease is being used as an unofficial and monstrous way of getting rid of political prisoners and of reducing the prison population to make room for more detainees. As the Ahwazi prisoner quoted earlier told Iran Wire, “There are 100 inmates locked up in one room. We’ve protested about the authorities’ refusal to separate the political prisoners from other, criminal inmates because we don’t believe that including them in the general prison population is any mistake. We’ve seen today that the life of prisoners has been placed in severe danger – the authorities have devised new methods to annihilate us. The prison’s administration used the open hall where we’re kept as a quarantine place for several prisoners with coronavirus. The prison staff told prisoners that the inmates suspected to be infected with Coronavirus were screened in one of the rooms off this hall. The prison’s staff also began to use the hall where the 100 inmates are kept for the new detainees because there is no room early quarantine. Also, prisoners Milad Baghlani and Hamid Reza – two Ahwazi political prisoners – were moved from Sheybani prison to an unknown destination after they contracted Coronavirus infections.”
Aaron Meyer, a researcher and analyst based in New-York, has noted that Iran’s prisons are infamously medieval, and notorious for their complete lack of medical facilities and disregard for the well-being of prisoners. He warned that prisoners, many of whom are there for political ‘crimes’, are at extremely high risk of death, adding that when this reaches pandemic level, this will happen extremely quickly unless pressure is exerted on the Iranian government immediately.
Speaking to DUSC on Saturday, a brother of one Ahwazi political prisoner held in Sheyban said, “I visit my brother who’s been sentenced to 20 years in prison every week, and he told me, ‘We’re dying slowly here” – he explained that in order for them to have a shower they have to wait in line for 3 hours and inside the bathroom is disgusting and dirty. He told me how the cells are infested with lice and bugs, with most of the prisoners itching constantly and all over their bodies. I heard from him and others that many prisoners get skin diseases and pass these on to other inmates because of the overcrowding and lack of hygiene, with the only way they can relieve the itching being to rub their backs against the walls that end up marked with dried, infected blood from that and the torture. In turn that attracts mosquitoes and flies that spread disease more. My brother told me, ‘I’m fed up, I wish they’d hang me, I’m giving up on life.’”
Irina Tuskerman, a human rights activist based in New- York who closely follows the human rights situation in Iran said, “Iran’s laxity and deliberate cover-up of the coronavirus is now reaching the most vulnerable segments of the population: Ahwazi human rights activists and other political prisoners held by the regime on various trumped up challenge. Iran could not even protect its own parliamentarians during to unwillingness to admit there is a problem. It has threatened anyone discussing the issue with flogging and prison. With over 200 dead thanks to bankrupt hospitals, poor medicine, and interference by ignorant clerics (and numbers could be much higher), the outbreak appears out of control. It will most quickly reach areas with the worst sanitary conditions, such as Ahwazi prisons that are even worse than regular lockups in Iran, and where prisoners suffer from vermin infestations and inability to wash regularly. Furthermore, Iran regime has placed no value on the lives of its population, much less Ahwazis who are treated worse than second class.”
“Therefore they will not only not take any measures to prevent the spread of the disease to the Ahwazi prisons but turn a blind eye on that, if not facilitate it, as they regard Ahwazis as an obstacle to the full control over the oil-rich provinces and the rest of the region.”
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. You can follow him on his twitter account: https://twitter.com/samireza42
Mostafa Hetteh is a writer and journalist: https://twitter.com/mostafahetteh
The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the Dur Untash Studies Centre.