Rajai Shahr Hunger Strike Expands Despite Authorities' Intransigence

The Iran Human Rights Monitor website reported on Tuesday that the hunger strike in Rajai Shahr Prison had continued to expand since its start nearly three weeks ago, and had come to encompass other prison facilities in the Islamic Republic.

The site had previously reported that several political prisoners in Ardabil Prison had announced a two-week hunger strike to be carried out in solidarity with the approximately two dozen individuals who are on an indefinite hunger strike in Rajai Shahr. Since then, one political prisoner in Central Zabol Prison has also joined in, bringing the total number of hunger strikers to about 30, plus untold numbers of activists who are conducting their own solidarity actions from outside the prison system and even outside the country.

The Iran Human Rights Monitor report also noted that one Rajai Shahr protestor, Hamzeh Darvish, who had been participating in the hunger strike for 18 days, had become the first to be hospitalized as a result of the health effects of the action. Darvish had lost approximately 24 pounds before being transferred to the prison clinic, and was also reportedly suffering from internal bleeding and dangerously low blood pressure.

Many of the protestors had already reported heart, lung, and kidney ailments, among other illnesses that seemingly warrant hospitalization. However, prison authorities have been denying the protestors access to all medical care, having already confiscated prescribed medications before the hunger strike began. Additional medicines, purchased at great expense by families outside the prison, have been confiscated before they could reach prisoners.

These actions have evidently been aimed at putting pressure on the inmates to end their hunger strikes, and the hospitalization of Mr. Darvish suggests that his life was in great danger. While the death of any participant would certainly constitute a public relations crisis for the Iranian regime, its officials have committed themselves to disregarding the protestors’ demands, which include the return of medicines and various other confiscated belongings, as well as their transfer back to the ward they had been housed in prior to their forcible transfer on July 30.

The prisoners’ new surroundings are under 24/7 video and audio surveillance and also consist of notably less humane conditions. Windows are covered with sheet metal, blocking virtually all ventilation; there are not sufficient numbers of beds for the more than 50 prisoners who were transferred; and prisoners have little access to clean running water.

On Sunday, the Center for Human Rights in Iran noted that Tehran Prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi had publicly dismissed the call for improvement to these conditions. “Prisoners must endure their punishment to the fullest,” he said. “We will not be influenced by the prisoners’ actions, such as hunger strikes.”

Dowlatabadi also referred to such protests as “threats” and he vowed that the Islamic Republic would not “surrender” to them. “To those prisoners who resort to hunger strikes and other actions, we say these methods have been defeated,” he said on August 23, at a Tehran conference focused on reducing the Iranian prison population. But the CHRI report noted that in pursuit of this “defeat,” the Iranian judiciary appeared to be violating its own laws, including those that bar the arbitrary confiscation of personal belongings and the transfer of prisoners whose relatives have not been informed of the impending move.

Meanwhile, reports detailing the expansion of the hunger strike both within and beyond Rajai Shahr Prison suggest the very opposite of Dowlatabadi’s conclusion about the potential success of those actions. Indeed, although the regime has gone to great lengths to avoid addressing the demands of hunger strikers, some such protests have become so prominent within public dialogue that the regime has been compelled to make at least nominal concessions to the individuals at their center.

In January of this year, Arash Sadeghi ended a hunger strike that had lasted 71 days and given rise to public protests outside of Evin Prison calling on judicial authorities to save the political prisoner’s life. Sadeghi had demanded the release of his wife, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, who had been sentenced to six years in prison on the basis of the content of a fictional short story she had written in a notebook that was uncovered during a raid on her home. The demand for her release was ultimately granted, but only in the loosest terms, consisting of conditional release pending a judicial review of her case.

Despite the limited effects of such a long hunger strike, the case was one of several that established the potential effectiveness of such protests, which have reportedly become more frequent in recent months. Accordingly, the Rajai Shahr hunger strike is not the only one that is ongoing at the present moment. Another CHRI report indicates that political prisoner Soheil Arabi recently restarted a hunger strike that he had previously ended in early August, after six days. Arabi alleges that Iranian authorities have tapped his family’s phones, hacked their online accounts, and directly threatened them. His hunger strike demands an end to this harassment, which is indicative of the broader patterns of harassment that Tehran is known to employ against the families of political prisoners and political exiles.

But Arabi’s case also points to the regime’s tendency to either break its promises or resume objectionable activities even after it initially seems to concede to the demands of hunger strikers. Arabi’s previous protest ended after his wife was released from detention by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which had accused her of having contact with foreign media. But the IRGC’s subsequent actions demonstrated that this momentary concession did not affect their broader campaign against the prisoner’s family.

In other cases, hunger strikes have ended after prisoners received assurances from regime authorities that their complaints would be addressed, only to later find that nothing had changed. The brothers Mehdi and Hossein Rajabian indicated that they were tricked into ending a hunger strike last year, which had been spurred in part by arbitrary transfers similar to those used against the Rajai Shahr prisoners. Earlier this year, the imprisoned civil rights activist Ali Shariati was reportedly promised conditional release in exchange for ending his hunger strike, only to have the release request promptly denied after he did so.

It remains to be seen whether similar deception was also employed to halt the widely reported hunger strike of Green Movement leader Mehdi Karroubi, who has been under house arrest for more than six years without formal charges or a trial. After the 79-year-old Karroubi was hospitalized following the first day of his hunger strike, at least two officials promised that the regime would concede to one of his demands: the removal of intelligence agents from his home. But after Karroubi called off the hunger strike on August 17, judiciary officials contradicted those promises, leading to some back-and-forth which has yet to be clearly resolved.

In light of Dowlatabadi’s statements, these patterns of deception and pressure against hunger striking political prisoners are indicative of the regime’s commitment to silencing potentially prominent protests as quickly as possible, but without conceding to the demands raised by those protests. This stands alongside the broader crackdowns that have reportedly been occurring throughout the Islamic Republic in recent years, and especially in the wake of the 2015 nuclear agreement, which led to some expectations of general rapprochement with the Western world.

On Tuesday, Iran Human Rights Monitor pointed to a handful of examples of the persistence of these crackdowns, noting that at least seven peaceful activists had been summoned to court in Khuzestan Province to face sentencing for such activities as helping to run an unsanctioned library and supporting the banned opposition group the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.

The PMOI, through its parent organization the National Council of Resistance of Iran, has taken a leading role in pushing for international action on behalf of the hunger striking Rajai Shahr prisoners. An early statement on the matter specifically called upon the United Nations’ High Commissioner on Human Rights and the special rapporteurs on torture and Iran’s human rights situation to launch an inquiry into the situation, on the understanding that the regime is unlikely to respond transparently to domestic pressure alone.

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