Amnesty International: Iran is Risking Political Prisoners’ Lives

According to a new report by Amnesty International published today, July 18, Iran’s authorities have been denying adequate medical care to political prisoners and other prisoners of conscience, putting them at grave risk of permanent disability, irreversible damage to their health, even death. 

The report, Health taken hostage: Cruel denial of medical care in Iran’s prisons, depicts the horrible state of health care in the country’s prisons, presenting strong evidence that the judiciary, in particular the Office of the Prosecutor, and prison administrations, deliberately prevent access to adequate medical care.

In many cases this appears to be an intentional, and is intended to intimidate, punish, or humiliate political prisoners, or to extract forced “confessions”, or statements of “repentance” from them.

Philip Luther, Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme says, “In Iran a prisoner’s health is routinely taken hostage by the authorities, who recklessly ignore the medical needs of those in custody. Denying medical care to political prisoners is cruel and utterly indefensible,” he said, adding, “Prisoners’ access to health care is a right enshrined in both international and Iranian law. When depriving a prisoner of medical care causes severe pain or suffering and it is intentionally done for purposes such as punishment, intimidation or to extract a forced ‘confession’, it constitutes torture.”

The report details 18 appalling cases of prisoners who have been denied medical care in some form, and are at risk of suffering permanent damage to their health. 

The Office of the Prosecutor, which make decisions concerning medical leave and hospital transfers, often refuses to authorize hospital transfers for prisoners when the care they need is not available in prison.  Even more disturbing, it denies requests for medical leave for critically ill prisoners against doctors’ advice.

Amnesty International’s research found several violations of prisoners’ rights. In some cases, medication was withheld from political prisoners, or unnecessarily restraints such as handcuffs and leg shackles were used. 

According to their report, “Prisoners interviewed by Amnesty International also said that prison doctors were sometimes complicit in the abuse. They said some prison doctors consistently downplayed or outright dismissed their health problems as ‘figments of their own imagination’ and treated serious conditions with painkillers or tranquillizers.”

The report reveals that in Tehran’s Evin Prison the clinic is entirely staffed by male doctors and nurses, so women political prisoners must face additional barriers to accessing medical care. Women prisoners were allegedly denied emergency medical tests or other treatment because it was deemed inappropriate for them to be treated by male medical staff. Women were also subjected to sexual slurs and harassment for failing to comply with strict veiling regulations.

“The Iranian authorities and in particular the prosecution authorities have displayed a chilling ruthlessness in their attitude towards sick prisoners. They are toying with individuals’ lives with devastating, lasting consequences to their health,” Philip Luther stated.

According to their report, Zeynab Jalalian, an Iranian Kurdish woman serving a life sentence in connection with her alleged membership of a Kurdish opposition group, is at risk of going blind because her treatment has been withheld. In urgent need of an eye operation, the authorities have repeatedly refuse to authorize her transfer to a hospital unless she provides ‘confessions’. “They said that if she did so, they would not only reduce her sentence but also take her to a doctor,” her sister, Deniz Jalalian, told Amnesty International.

Even worse, Amnesty International reports that “Prisoner of conscience Omid Kokabee, a 33-year-old physicist serving a 10-year sentence for refusing to work on military projects in Iran, complained of kidney problems for nearly five years but the authorities ignored his repeated requests for medical care. In April 2016, he was diagnosed with advanced kidney cancer and had to undergo emergency surgery to remove his right kidney.” A photograph recently emerged showing Omid Kokabee chained to his hospital bed in 2015 caused an outcry on social media.

Included in the report is the case of “Afshin Sohrabzadeh, an Iranian Kurdish political prisoner serving a 25-year prison sentence, was also repeatedly denied the specialized treatment he urgently needed for an intestinal cancer which resulted in severe and frequent gastrointestinal bleeding. The authorities also made his medical leave conditional on an extortionate bail amount.”  He was finally granted temporary medical leave on 25 June 2016, but he remains unable to fund his treatment because] his national identification documents were confiscated, preventing him from applying for government-subsidized health care.

Another shocking case reported by Amnesty International, is that of Afif Naimi, “a prisoner of conscience and one of seven imprisoned leaders of Iran’s Baha’i community serving a 10-year prison term, is He suffers from a severe blood clotting disorder, which requires regular, specialized medical care not available in prison. The condition can be fatal if left untreated. He has been deemed unfit for imprisonment by medical professionals several times but despite this the Office of the Prosecutor has refused to release him on medical grounds. While in prison, he has suffered recurrent bleeding and loss of consciousness, resulting in his frequent hospitalization.”

Many political prisoners go on hunger strike to compel the authorities to provide them with medical care. In some, but certainly not all, cases the authorities have eventually granted the hunger striker short-term medical leave, but many times they force them to interrupt their treatment and return them to prison against medical advice.

Amnesty International reports the case of prisoner of conscience “Alireza Rasouli, who is serving a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence, was sentenced to three additional years after he was convicted of national security charges such as ‘spreading propaganda against the system’ including through staging hunger strikes. He suffers from a bone disease in his leg, which has deteriorated because it was left untreated, causing him severe pain and restricting his ability to move. He now requires surgery outside of prison to prevent potentially permanent joint damage.”

Additionally, scores of political prisoners affiliated to the main Iranian opposition group People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI or MEK) have gone on hunger strike on many occasions in the past year in protest inhumane conditions and duress in the regime’s prisons. There have also been continuous reports on the mistreatment of other political prisoners from ethnic and religious minorities, in particular Kurdish and Sunni prisoners.

Amnesty International has told the Iranian authorities to stop denying prisoners access to adequate medical care.  In line with their international obligations, they must investigate the prosecution authorities and all other officials, including medical staff, who may be involved in deliberately denying medical care to prisoners.