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 Ahwazi prisoner dies as Iran’s regime weaponises Coronavirus to crush dissent

Ahwazi human rights organisations and activists, in addition to many regional and international organisations, are drawing attention to a worrying escalation in the use of the death penalty, long-term imprisonment, exile, and torture of Ahwazi activists in Iranian prisons. Human rights organisations, activists and former prisoners have also said that Iranian authorities are systematically violating the rights of Ahwazi prisoners.

One of the policies that the authorities use is to neglect the health of prisoners on a political, ethnic and racial basis. For example, this past week, an Ahwazi prisoner died in Sepidar Prison due to coronavirus after authorities prevented the provision of treatment or medication. They did not even transfer him to hospital before his death.

Ahwazi activists reported the death of 37-year-old prisoner Saeed Heidari, who is married and has two children. He died on 15 July at 11 a.m. in the infamous Sepidar Prison in the regional capital, Ahwaz due to a coronavirus outbreak. Mr Heidari had been detained in the Sepidar Prison since 2018 for ‘social reasons’, and had been waiting for his trial since his arrest, but the authorities refused to release him on bail after the spread of coronavirus within the prison. He fell ill on 11 July, but the officials of the prison refused to transfer him to the hospital. Without treatment, his condition rapidly deteriorated, and he died later on 16 July. Authorities gave his body to his family, but on the condition of silence regarding the case, which is another policy they use to try and stop the government’s human rights abuses from coming to the attention of the world’s media. 

 His family reported to DUSC that Saeed was also denied medicine such as insulin for his type 2 diabetes. He called his family and told them that instead of getting him to a hospital or on a ventilator, regime prison personnel beat him and accused him of simulating COVID-19, leaving him to die there. He lost his vision in the left eye, his kidney was damaged, and finally, he was infected with coronavirus, and the only response to all these medical issues was to be accused of faking the deadly illness in order to receive treatment outside the prison.

A judicial official in Iran also announced death sentences against three Ahwazi prisoners, who had been transferred to solitary confinement on April 2020 after a protest by prisoners in the Shaiban prison. Sources report that these three activists are suffering from health problems and, in addition, a considerable number of Ahwazi activists that have been forcibly detained, and the authorities refuse to provide information to their families. A large number of these detainees have been held in detention since September 2018, and it seems that many of them have been infected with coronavirus in prisons. These cases indicate that there has been systematic persecution of Ahwazis in prisons by the Iranian authorities. Dr Gill Leighton, a Canadian Professor of Law and Human Rights, summarised: “It appears to be the case that many are being detained and deliberately taken to prisons which have known outbreaks of coronavirus. Increasing numbers of Ahwazis are disproportionately being imprisoned. 

Actions like this are a horrific abuse of power and seem to be happening with complete impunity. The Iranian regime must be severely condemned by international bodies which have responsibility for upholding human rights. An international independent investigation must be called for and immediately put in action.”

In April 2020, Al-Hurra channel, quoting the Washington Institute, broadcasted a report on Ahwazi prisoners, stating that “prisoners face death in the prisons of the Iranian regime.” [1] The report noted that “the coronavirus outbreak in Iran has left the government struggling to respond, to the point that the regime has announced the release of 85,000 prisoners to reduce the risk of coronavirus spread in overcrowded prisons. However, this amnesty policy has excluded the vast majority of prisoners in Iran, no less likely to experience the terrifying combination of inhumane prison conditions and their ability to quickly spread disease—including coronavirus.” [2]

The report continued: “Among the prisoners are tens of thousands of Ahwazi male and female prisoners detained in the regime’s massively overcrowded jails. After the amnesty announcement raised the hope of these prisoners’ families, hopes were quickly dashed upon discovering that NO Ahwazis were included in the amnesty. The resulting tensions have now boiled over, with lethal results.” According to recent sources from Ahwazi prisoners, this dreadful situation has caused increased tensions inside prisons. Prisoners are now protesting against regime policies regarding abuse as well as their failure to release prisoners, as they had promised they would. 

A former prisoner in an interview with DUSC said that “political prisoners and other prisoners suffer from malnutrition, cuts, bruises, burns and the spread of diseases, so there are dozens of people who have similarity to the case of Heidari, who died recently due to coronavirus.” The former prisoner informed DUSC that Ahwazi political prisoners are facing severe physical abuse, despite the government’s denials that men and women in custody are being tortured. 

Pressure on Iran over the arrest and negative treatment of political and other prisoners has been growing in recent months amid allegations that some detainees have been subjected to physical torture and health deprivation in detention. For example, Amnesty International, in its report on 30 April 2020, noted that “scores of Ahwazi prisoners in the Shaiban prison, require medical care for injuries caused by beatings and metal pellets fired by security forces on 31 March during protests over the spread of coronavirus in prison. Three prisoners, Hussein Silawi, Ali Khasraji and Naser Khafaji, remain detained. At least seven others, including prisoners of conscience Jaber Alboshokah and Mokhtar Alboshokah, have been crammed into a single cell intended for solitary confinement and were on hunger strike.” [3]

Persecution in prisons 

Cases of persecution in prisons against Ahwazi are widespread. The torture of protestors in prisons as well as the failure to provide health services and critical care have led to an escalation of suffering.

Saeed Heidari is the latest victim of Iran’s deeply flawed criminal justice system, which systematically deliberately uses fabricated evidence or the intentional neglect of prisoners. This includes “taking forced confessions under torture” and continuing other forms ill-treatment to secure confessions and criminal convictions. Ghazi Heidari, a prominent activist and former Ahwazi political prisoner, said that “using policies of the killing of prisoners by all means as a tool to instil fear and maintain an iron grip on Ahwazi society is unimaginable cruel. The Iranian authorities are trying to use the policy of killing under various pretexts, including coronavirus so that they can send fear among prisoners and political activists in Ahwaz.” 

Ghazi Heidari, who was in prison from 2009 to 2017, stated that “Iranian prisons in Ahwaz lack the most basic capabilities, as prisoners suffer from deprivation,” adding that “during his detention in Karoon Prison, he witnessed the death of 5 to 6 prisoners every week due to medical negligence and outbreaks of diseases such as tuberculosis, hepatitis, AIDS and other viral diseases.” Heidari pointed out that “There is a double injustice on Ahwazi prisoners because of racism and discrimination among Iranian officials, as well as the policy of the political system in Iran against Ahwazis.” Heidari also added that he witnessed many prisoners who were suffering from chest and stomach pain, mental disorders, appendix problems, among other health issues. Many of them remained for several days without treatment, resulting in a high death toll due to intentional negligence. 

Numerous Ahwazi organisations’ reports provide evidence to show that discrimination against political prisoners is therefore two-fold, as many prisoners face a policy of neglect, torture, humiliation, as well as the inability to access health and medical capabilities. Reports stated that many Ahwazi prisoners have been executed and killed under torture inside prisons, all the while having no access to a fair court. Amnesty International also stated in a report in 2018 that “some Ahwazi detainees have already been secretly executed without referring to the courts or not having access to fair courts. The Amnesty International report noted that “the Iranian authorities must immediately disclose the fate and whereabouts of hundreds of detained Ahwazis and allow them to contact their families or their lawyers.” [4]

One of those who was reportedly secretly executed is Ahmad Heidari, a 30-year-old ceramics shopkeeper, who was arrested within a few days of the attack (on a military parade) in Ahwaz in September 2018. His family had no news of his whereabouts until 11 November 2018, when they received a telephone call by the Ministry of Intelligence in Ahwaz. The Ministry had executed him three days earlier and obtained his death certificate. 

Officials refused to return his body for burial and told his family that they were not allowed to hold memorial ceremonies. Heidari was also another Ahwazi who was executed without trial and without having a lawyer. 

These latest executions follow a chilling rise in the use of the death penalty by Iran’s authorities with the apparent aim to intensify fear and deter popular protests over worsening political and economic crises engulfing the country. The authorities continue to violate prisoners’ rights despite widespread international condemnation by human rights organisations and public outrage. There is also outrage about the killing of prisoners arrested in September 2018 and November 2019, as well as other prominent political prisoners.

Amnesty International announced that the Iranian authorities detained more than 600 people in Ahwaz in a wave of arrests in the wake of an armed attack in the city of Ahwaz on 22 September and the organisation demands the release of detainees who were subjected to torture, deprivation, and healthcare neglect. Ahwazi organisations have furthermore reported that up to 1,000 Ahwazis, including women, the elderly and teenagers, are among the detainees. A number of them were executed, and others were murdered under torture. The organisations also shared that a large number of detainees suffer from health problems while in prison. 

Those who were arrested after the Ma’shor massacre in November 2019, in which 140 people were killed by the IRGC, have faced intense persecution as well. More than 600 people were arrested, and many of them are still in detention. The family of one of the detainees in Ma’shor said that “they received a call from their son only once and then they have no details about him.” A family member added that “the detainee is suffering from kidney problems and might be infected with coronavirus in prison.” 

The attack by security forces on prisoners, particularly detainees in its Ward 5, to quell the protests is one of the most heinous crimes that has occurred in Ahwaz. The protest broke out on 31 March and 1 April over the regime’s refusal to release any of these political detainees in its amnesties introduced to reduce prisoner numbers and potential deaths due to the coronavirus pandemic. Security forces responded by attacking prisons and opening fire on the detainees. Five detainees were killed in the notorious Shaiban prison, 7 people in the Sepidar prison, and several others in Abadan prison, meanwhile more than 400 prisoners were transferred to solitary confinement. As mentioned above, three prisoners, Hussein Silawi, Ali Khasraji and Naser Khafaji, remain forcibly detained. At least seven others, including prisoners of conscience Jaber Alboshoka and Mokhtar Alboshoka, were crammed into one cell designated for solitary confinement while they were on hunger strike. The family of one of the detainees confirmed that a large number of these detainees were infected with coronavirus. Ahwazi detainees’ families protested outside the Shaiban Prison in the regional capital, Ahwaz, on Saturday 9 May, demanding access to their loved ones and information on their condition and wellbeing. 

 Karim Dohimi, an Ahwazi rights activist based in London, told DUSC that the crackdown and imprisonment of Ahwazi teachers and civil activists have intensified. For example, an Ahwazi teacher named Adel Asakereh has been convicted to nine years in prison merely for using social media to criticise Iranian authorities for the miserable living conditions of local Ahwazi villagers, the confiscation of their lands by sugarcane companies, and depriving them of accessing clean water in Falahiyeh.

 Dahimi added Asakereh is a history graduate and had been working at a school in the town of Falahiyeh when security forces detained him in May 2019. They kept him in solitary confinement for several months as they interrogated him about his social media posts before releasing him on bail. 

 Ahwazis believe that the arrest, subsequent torture, and execution of activists have increased on a large scale. Iran’s growing use of the death penalty, arbitrary arrests, and the spread of coronavirus in prisons as a political weapon for repression should bring the immediate attention of the international community as it is a violation of international law. 

International Law

The principal international human rights documents clearly protect the human rights of prisoners. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment both prohibit torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, without exception or derogation. Article 10 of the ICCPR states that “all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”

Several additional international documents “flesh out the human rights of persons deprived of liberty, providing guidance as to how governments may comply with their international legal obligations.” The most comprehensive such guidelines are the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (known as the Standard Minimum Rules), adopted by the UN Economic and Social Council in 1957. It should be noted that “although the Standard Minimum Rules are not a treaty, they constitute an authoritative guide to binding treaty standards.” 

There are also several international regulations that defend the rights of prisoners and governments must respect these laws: “A Body of Principles for the Protection of all Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment,” “the Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners”, “The Third Geneva Convention”, and “European Convention to Prevent Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.” All of this international not only demonstrates the extent of crimes being committed against Ahwazis, but also their unacceptable and cruel treatment during detention and in prisons. The law provides many ways for international organisations to take legal action against the Iran government, should there be the political will to do so.

Conclusion 

The critical situation in Ahwaz since September 2018 demonstrates that Iran intentionally violates the rights of Ahwazi prisoners. Since 2018, there have been many human rights violations against Ahwazi activists, for instance, in September 2018 when 1000 Ahwazis, including teenagers and women, were arrested, and when another 600 Ahwazis arrested in November 2019, the vast majority of whom have not yet been released. This indicates that the Iranian regime is using a policy of inducing fear and intimidation in Ahwazi society by killing and torturing prisoners.

Ahwazis believe that the death of the 37-year-old Ahwazi prisoner Saeed Heidari, is an example of the increasing use of coronavirus as a weapon to suppress political prisoners. However, there are other ways in which Ahwazis are being mistreated in prisons, such as the use torture and execution without the utilisation of court system, and allowing the spread of infectious diseases among prisoners while denying them access to medical care. 

The violations against Ahwazi prisoners have been a part of the regime’s policy since 1979, and that the regime, which killed 1,500 protesters in Iran, including 140 people in the city of Ma`shor in November 2019, certainly does not care about the health of Ahwazi detainees. However, the focus in this article is to bring attention to the most recent incidents in Ahwaz, such as the situation of the prisoners who were arrested in 2018 and 2019, as well as prominent political prisoners who have been detained for many years. The execution of detainees purely because they are Ahwazi, without access to the court system, the killing of a number of protesters in prisons, and the death of prisoner Saeed Heidari on 16 July, all indicate the continuation of a policy of repression, murder, and intimidation against Ahwazi prisoners in order to intimidate activists trying to bring this to the world’s’ attention and, indeed, all Ahwazis. 

Prisoners sentenced to death, and even political prisoners sentenced to imprisonment, in Ahwaz are especially at risk, because the government’s modus operandi is continuing intimidation by executing prisoners as the regime remains concerned with the possible re-eruption of popular protests. Consequently, the United Nations and its bodies, as well as its member states, should intervene urgently to save the lives of people at risk of execution. The international community should urge Iran to stop using the death penalty and other forms of ill-treatment to sow fear and silence political opposition. An investigation into Mr Heidari’s death due to unmitigated coronavirus is also in order, in addition to the suspicious deaths of other Ahwazis. Pressure must be put on the Iranian regime to release detainees and prisoners to save their lives, reduce coronavirus and stop using it as a weapon to cause as many Ahwazi deaths as possible.

 By Kamil Alboshoka

Kamil Alboshoka is an Ahwazi researcher and international law specialist. He tweets under https://twitter.com/KAlboshoka?s=09

Editing by Rahim Hamid. 

Rahim Hamid is an editor and writer based in the USA.

References 

[1] Al-Hurra Channel, April 2020. Link <https://www.alhurra.com/different-angle/Ahwazi-Prisoners-Face-Imminent-Death>

[2] Washington Institute, April 2020. Link <https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/fikraforum/view/iran-coronavirus-prisoners-ahwaz>

[3] Amnesty International, April 2020. Link <https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/mde13/2237/2020/en/>

[4] Amnesty International, November 2018. Link <http://bit.ly/2XpGcMc>

The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the Dur Untash Studies Centre.

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