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Working for civil liberties in Iran

Our Statement in Support of Political Prisoners during the Coronavirus Outbreak

UPDATED MARCH 18

We at United for Iran have been following the recent public health crisis in Iran closely, and are gravely concerned by how rapidly the coronavirus has spread through the country.

According to the latest official report, as of March 17, the number of people with coronavirus in Iran has increased to about 16,000 and the number of people who have died from the disease has reached 988. Patients with the virus have been identified in all provinces of Iran, and the number of affected people is increasing rapidly on a daily basis. Speaking to Radio Farda on Monday, a health worker closely involved with the Coronavirus Combat Taskforce who cannot be named for his safety confirmed that the death toll from coronavirus (COVID-19) in Iran is up to three times the official numbers.

Mismanagement of the public health crisis and the initial secrecy on the part of government officials has been said to have led to an unprecedented spread of the disease in Iran. Many analysts attribute the government’s attempt at secrecy to the widespread outbreak, citing its repressive outlook, its dependence on China, and the government’s attempt to secure a large turnout at the parliamentary elections.

The plight of Iran’s prison population is particularly worrisome. Many prisons do not meet minimum health standards, making the risk of outbreak in the prison environment high.

United for Iran previously highlighted the health crisis in prisons by publishing a detailed report on life behind bars in Iran. The data collected from Iran Prison Atlas also confirms that most of Iran’s prisons do not meet minimum health requirements. Iran Prison Atlas has collected the names of 395 political prisoners who have been in prison for the past four years, and the government has refused to provide them with sufficient health care.

Family members of 26 political prisoners issued an open letter in early March calling for the release of prisoners until the crisis ends. They wrote in their letter: “Given the alarming news about the spread of the coronavirus in the country’s prisons, and the fact that inmates lack access to adequate and acceptable health care, they are in grave danger of being infected because of their close cohabitation. We represent a group of political prisoners’ families demanding the release or at least acceptable leave of detention until the crisis ends in order to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.”

Concerned about the situation of prisons, the head of the Islamic Republic’s judiciary issued a decree on March 4 that ordered the temporary release of some prisoners. According to this directive, some inmates who were sentenced to prison and those who were imprisoned for financial cases or unable to pay fines could be granted a leave of absence until April 5 (five weeks after the regulation was issued) by providing some form of bail. Gholam Hossein Ismaili, spokesman for the Islamic Republic’s judiciary, announced on March 5 that about 54,000 prisoners were released following the issuance of this directive. The current number of prisoners temporarily released sits at about 85,000 (updated March 18).

However, this directive has excluded political prisoners who have been convicted for more than five years, and very few political prisoners sentenced to less than five years have been given leave. So even under the critical circumstances of the spread of coronavirus, the Iranian government has deprived political prisoners of leave and endangered their lives.

While expressing concern over the situation of prisoners in Iran and the threat of coronavirus in the prisons, United for Iran calls on the authorities of the Islamic Republic to immediately release all political prisoners, as well as additional nonpolitical prisoners, by granting them with immediate temporary leave.

United for Iran emphasizes that this request is made in light of current urgent conditions and is not in breach of its previous demands for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners and the guarantee of fundamental freedoms for Iranian citizens.

It is our sincere hope that the authorities work swiftly to contain the continued transmission of this virus and protect their people in a season that has already been filled with so much pain and unrest.