States of emergency, such as wars, natural disasters and pandemics, have historically been fertile breeding grounds for human rights abuse. That’s exactly what we’re now seeing in Iran, the epicenter of covid-19 in the Middle East. The pandemic has caused thousands of deaths and brought its leadership’s incompetence, corruption and oppressive rule into plain sight. Yet the covid-19 threat is also laying bare the government’s continuing contempt for human rights.
The situation was already dire before the pandemic came along. In November 2019, about 1,500 Iranian protesters were reportedly killed by state security forces and thousands more imprisoned. Iranians mourned again in January, when security forces launched a missile that shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane, killing 176 people.
Now the covid-19 outbreak is exacerbating the government’s assault on the rights of Iranian citizens.
The system’s overarching censorship and lack of transparency pose a particular threat. Doctors and experts face intimidation and prosecution for contradicting the state’s narrative on the pandemic. Official reports become much less reliable, making the virus even harder to contain.
The Iranian government recently expelled the nongovernment organization Doctors Without Borders — presumably because it had the capacity to provide independent reporting on health-care policy. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has declared that the government will refuse any humanitarian help from the United States — once again demonstrating that the Tehran regime not only doesn’t care about the well-being of its people but actually works against it.
Despite great personal risk, nearly 150 prominent Iranian political activists, trade union organizers and artists recently slammed the authorities for failing to contain the effects of the virus and trying to cover up the facts.
The virus is also likely to have a disproportionate impact on the inmates of Iranian prisons. The country has a large number of unjustly incarcerated people, political prisoners, and dual and foreign nationals held hostage to extract gains from foreign governments. Groups such as the World Health Organization and Amnesty International have made it clear that prisoners are at great risk of contracting the coronavirus because they live in conditions that facilitate transmission and make them more susceptible to the disease.
This is why renowned human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, unjustly sentenced to 38 years and held in Evin Prison, recently went on a hunger strike to demand the release of all political prisoners.
Eighteen-year-old Fatemeh Khishvand — also known as Instagram celebrity Sahar Tabar and detained since October 2019 — is on a ventilator in a Tehran hospital after contracting the coronavirus during imprisonment. Wildlife conservationist Sam Rajabi has also reportedly been diagnosed with covid-19 but is not being released from Evin after several weeks of persistent symptoms.
Despite the grave risks to their health, 18 of the 37 prisoners in the women’s ward of Evin have yet to be granted furlough. They include environmentalists Sepideh Kashani and Niloufar Bayani as well as activists Saba Kord-Afshari, Yasamin Aryani and Atena Daemi.
According to Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi, activist Narges Mohammadi, who already suffered from serious health problems, has been transferred to a ward where the authorities have urged individuals convicted of violent crimes to harass her physically and mentally.
In the meantime, several dual and foreign nationals, including Iranian American businessman Siamak Namazi, British Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert and 66-year-old British Iranian Anoosheh Ashoori, remain imprisoned on trumped-up national security charges. Given the conditions they face, all should be considered at high risk of contracting the virus.
On Sunday, President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran’s judiciary had approved a month-long extension of prison leave for the non-dangerous prisoners it had previously released temporarily to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Yet for furloughed political prisoners such as British Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the extension was contingent on approval from prosecutors and prison officials, who grant it only in return for “good behavior” — defined, of course, in their own highly dubious terms. Several furloughed prisoners, including dissident Samaneh Norouz Moradi, who suffers from lupus, have returned to prison.
Rather than responding to prisoners’ legitimate demands to be protected from covid-19, Iranian authorities have instead resorted to using lethal force. Amnesty International reports that up to 36 prisoners have been killed for staging protests about the authorities’ failure to protect them from the virus.
To mitigate the risk of mass infections in prisons and to protect the general population, world leaders should support the United Nations’ call for Iran to unconditionally and permanently free all peaceful individuals who should not have been behind bars in the first place.
Defending human rights is an essential part of defending the vulnerable from covid-19 in Iran and everywhere. For all of our sakes, it is not only a public health necessity but also a moral imperative to include all at-risk communities — including prisoners and the oppressed — in efforts to battle the pandemic.
Nazanin Boniadi is an actress, activist and a member of the Board of Directors at the Center for Human Rights in Iran.