To protect against the spread of COVID-19, Iran must free prisoners of conscience

By Kaitlyn O’Shaughnessy, AIUSA Women’s Human Rights Coordination Group

Prisons around the world and throughout the United States are hotbeds for coronavirus transmission. Respect for human rights means releasing as many of these prisoners as possible.

Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh began a hunger strike last month to demand freedom for all those she calls “political prisoners,” in the wake of the coronavirus. Ms. Sotoudeh represented women targeted by Iranian authorities for protesting forced hijab (veiling). She believes veiling should be a woman’s choice and not something imposed by the government. Because of her representation of her clients and human rights advocacy, Iranian authorities sentenced her to a total of 38 years in prison plus 148 lashes on several spurious national security-related charges including “forming a group with the purpose of disrupting national security”, “spreading propaganda against the system” and “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security.” The most recent charges against Nasrin Sotoudeh stem from her peaceful human rights activities against forced veiling, including those undertaken in her role as a lawyer, such as meeting with her clients. The other national security-related charges stem from Ms. Sotoudeh’s involvement with human rights groups such as the Center for Human Rights Defenders and the Campaign for Step by Step Abolition of the Death Penalty. The Iranian government has used these activities to build a criminal case against Ms. Sotoudeh.

Since Ms. Sotoudeh began her hunger strike, at least three other activists have joined her to support her demand to free all political prisoners as the pandemic grips their country and the world.

Although Iranian authorities temporarily released tens of thousands of prisoners in response to the coronavirus outbreak, Iran continues to hold many of its prisoners in unsafe conditions, unnecessarily exposing them to COVID-19. Hundreds of prisoners of conscience remain jailed, including human rights defenders, peaceful protesters and others detained solely for peacefully expressing their rights to freedom of expression, association and/or assembly. These individuals should not be in detention in the first place.

Many of Iran’s prisons have detention conditions that fall far short of international standards, including with respect to overcrowding, poor ventilation, limited hot water during the winter season, inadequate food, insufficient beds and insect infestations. Such prison conditions are highly susceptible to the spread of infectious disease, thereby exacerbating the coronavirus pandemic faced by Ms. Sotoudeh and other prisoners of conscience.

As in many other countries throughout the world, Iran’s healthcare system is stretched to capacity. Iranian doctors and nurses are struggling to cope with the pandemic and provide critical care to citizens. Allowing political prisoners to remain in prison, where chances of COVID-19 transmission are extremely high, is dangerous and deeply disrespectful to those brave frontline workers who depend on their government to do everything it can to stop transmission of the virus. For those languishing in prisons, the government’s refusal to release them may well become a death sentence.

Ms. Sotoudeh started her hunger strike as a last resort to urge Iranian authorities to release people she calls “political prisoners.” According to Ms. Sotoudeh’s husband, Reza Khandan, who lives in Tehran with their two children, Nasrin says, ‘If we’re going to die, let us be by our families’ sides, can’t you let us go even under these circumstances?’

Authorities must take measures to protect the health of all prisoners and urgently consider releasing pre-trial detainees and those who may be at particular risk of severe illness or death. Use this template or your own words to write to Iran’s Head of Judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi to demand that Iran immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience, including human rights defenders and to urgently consider releasing other prisoners — especially pre-trial detainees and those who may be more at risk from the virus, like older detainees and those with underlying health conditions, — and take necessary measures to protect the health of all prisoners.