Leaked letters from Iranian officials obtained by Amnesty International have revealed Tehran’s complacency in the face of the coronavirus crisis and the country’s overstretched prison system.
The rights group said in a statement Friday that Iran’s prisons remained “catastrophically unequipped for outbreaks,” after reviewing letters from prison officials to the Ministry of Health that raised the alarm over a serious shortage of essential medical supplies.
Prison officials’ requests for millions of masks and gloves, hundreds of thousands of litres of hand sanitizer and disinfectant, and other equipment essential for preventing the spread of the virus received no response from the Ministry of Health.
Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty’s deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, said: “These official letters provide damning evidence of the government’s appalling failure to protect prisoners. Requests for urgently needed disinfectant products, protective equipment and medical devices have been ignored for months.”
The leaked letters, sent by officials from Iran’s Prisons Organization, singled out the presence of “older (people), pregnant women, nursing mothers and their infants who suffer from a weak immune system” throughout the country’s prisons, and warned that government inaction would result in “security hazards” and “irreparable harm.”
These vulnerable populations made the lack of protective equipment “particularly alarming,” Eltahawy said.
“Overcrowding, poor ventilation, lack of basic sanitation and medical equipment, and deliberate neglect of prisoners’ health problems, are making Iranian prisons a perfect breeding ground for COVID-19. The Iranian authorities must stop denying the health crisis in Iran’s prisons and take urgent steps to protect prisoners’ health and lives.”
Tehran claimed in April that there had not been a single COVID-19 related death in Iranian prisons, but the documents obtained by Amnesty, as well as investigation by other rights groups, paint a far grimmer picture.
Prisoners with coronavirus symptoms are said to be neglected and ignored for days, before being put in solitary confinement – without medical care – when their symptoms worsen.
Amnesty’s statement claimed that at least 20 have died in Iranian prisons from the virus, and at least one female prisoner who tested positive for the virus had been forcibly disappeared.
The outbreak within Iran’s prison system is aggravated by chronic overcrowding.
Despite the official capacity of 85,000 detainees, Iran’s prison population in July last year was around 240,000.
Tehran introduced a prison furlough scheme to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but only 29,000 prisoners were released. This leaves the number of prisoners still nearly three times higher than official capacity.
Amnesty said the overcrowding had contributed to “filthy and insufficient bathroom facilities,” “widespread insect infestations,” and “ a severe shortage of beds, meaning many prisoners have to sleep on the floor.”
“We once again call on Iranian authorities to urgently address overcrowding in prisons, including by immediately and unconditionally releasing all those detained for the peaceful exercise of their rights,” Eltahawy said.
The Amnesty report also urged Tehran to “ensure access to adequate food, water, health care, hygiene and bedding for all prisoners” and to “allow international monitors, including the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, to conduct independent, unannounced inspections of prisons.”