By Edward Carney
Multiple Iranian political prisoners are currently at risk of death or further deterioration in their health condition as a result of their being denied access to essential medical treatment by prison authorities.
Human rights activist groups have called attention to a number of these cases in just the past few days, shining a spotlight on what may be one of the most persistent violations of individual human rights in the Islamic Republic.
On Monday, Amnesty International issued an “Urgent Action” statement regarding the case of Mohammad Habibi, a teacher and trade unionist who is serving a 10 and a half year sentence on the basis of his labor rights activism and his membership on the board of the Iran Teachers Trade Association.
He is reportedly suffering from health conditions that require specialized care, some of which may stem from his violent arrest, apparently at the hands of the intelligence division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The Amnesty report provides details about that arrest, in which Habibi was abducted by agents who did not initially identify themselves or provide a reason for the arrest. Since that incident, the detainee has been complaining of severe pain in his chest and difficulty in breathing, but authorities have only responded by providing him with a non-prescription inhaler. Additionally, a general practicing doctor has identified signs of a kidney ailment for which Habibi likely requires specialized treatment, but authorities have ignored the doctor’s urgent recommendation.
Meanwhile, the prominent political prisoner Arash Sadeghi has similarly been denied access to specialized care, even after it became clear that he is suffering from cancer. Many weeks after his initial diagnosis, Sadeghi was permitted to undergo surgery to remove a bone tumor, but as Iran Human Rights Monitor explains, he was then promptly returned to his cell at Rajai Shahr Prison, before doctors were able to perform necessary follow-ups to assess his condition and determine whether he was in need of radiation, chemotherapy, or further surgery.
IHRM goes on to characterize the authorities’ treatment of Sadeghi as a deliberate effort to hamper his recovery or heighten the risk to his life. The report also quotes an earlier Amnesty International statement as saying the civil activist’s treatment “is not only unspeakably cruel; in legal terms it is an act of torture.”
This sentiment was echoed on Monday in a statement by the Center for Human Rights in Iran, regarding the same specific case as well as the overall pattern of Tehran’s obstruction of medical treatment for political prisoners.
Highlighting the blatantly political nature of the charges for which the prisoner in question has been sentenced to 15 years in prison, CHRI Executive Director Hadi Ghaemi said, “Arash Sadeghi shouldn’t be in an Iranian prison in the first place, let alone struggling to access medical care for life-threatening health problems.”
The report points out that in addition to simply preventing specialized care, prison authorities have kept Sadeghi in harsh and unhygienic conditions, which have already resulted in worsening infections.
Furthermore, CHRI underscores the potential consequences of such mistreatment by highlighting past instances of medical neglect resulting in either death or permanent impairment.
One such case is Alireza Rajaei, who lost an eye and a portion of his jaw in August 2017 as a result of sinus cancer that had been left untreated. Another is Mohammad Jarrahi, who died of thyroid cancer three months later.
And the previous year, physics graduate student and political prisoner Omid Kokabee was diagnosed with advanced kidney cancer after years of complaining of a worsening ailment and being deprived of a diagnosis or a form of treatment other than painkillers.
According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency, at least five people have died this year as a result of medical neglect in Zahedan Central Prison alone. The latest such incident was recorded on Friday and involved Afghan national Abdolnabi Saresi, who was known to suffer from diabetes and had been waiting two years to face trial on financial charges.
Staff at the prison infirmary reportedly recommended his urgent transfer to hospital the day before his death, but were refused by prison authorities.
While Arash Sadeghi and Omid Kokabee each received surgery while still serving their sentences, the attendant delays represent a serious risk of further advancement of the disease.
On Sunday, HRANA pointed to a previous instance of this happening and prompting no change whatsoever in the behavior of prison authorities. The report notes that the 66-year-old political prisoner Sotoudeh Fazeli was afforded a brief furlough in July 2017, only to be returned to prison after her condition had worsened.
Fazeli has since requested conditional release but has been flatly denied. Release on medical grounds is an established feature of Iranian law, but it is much less likely for such an allowance to be granted to political prisoners, and in some cases, a marginal improvement in the patient’s condition results in him or her being ordered back to prison to resume an earlier sentence.
Interestingly, some political prisoners find themselves deprived of access to medical care even when they are granted furlough on some other grounds. For example, Iran Human Rights reported on Friday that Narges Mohammadi, who is serving a 16-year sentence for her activism in opposition to the death penalty, was recently given three days to visit her ailing father in the hospital, but has been refused numerous requests over the past three years for release to hospital in order to address any of her several worsening medical complaints. By contrast, HRANA notes that Sotoudeh Fazeli was not permitted to leave prison in order to visit her dying mother.
In some cases, the health risks associated with Iranian political imprisonment are self-created but authorities’ neglect is no less at fault. Hunger strikes are a familiar form of protest among the activist population, and while these tend to garner public sympathy, they are often either ignored or actively covered up by officials who seek to exert additional pressure in order to break the protest.
Long periods of willful starvation can, of course, have permanent or even fatal consequences. Last week, Iran Human Rights Monitor cautioned that the political prisoner Farhad Meysami was certainly facing these consequences after more than 50 days of the Iranian judiciary’s refusal to answer his demand that political prisoners be permitted to choose their own lawyers.
Shortly before the IHRM report was issued, Meysami announced that his hunger strike would be transitioning from “wet” to “dry” and that he would no longer be taking fluids, thereby escalating the imminent health risks of his protest.