Insider news & Analysis in Iran
Murder of Political Prisoner Highlights Recurring Extrajudicial Punishments in Iran

By Edward Carney

On Thursday, it was reported that 10 Iranian political prisoners had attached their names to an open letter responding to the murder of another political prisoner, 21-year-old Alireza Shir-Mohammad-Ali, by fellow inmates. The letter does not mince words in describing the circumstances of his death, but explicitly accuses prison authorities of leaving the door to his solitary confinement cell unlocked after directing two violent offenders to attack him.

Iran Human Rights Monitor previously made the same allegations in reporting upon the murder itself. Both reports underscored the fact that Shir-Mohammad-Ali’s death was effectively anticipated by the prisoner himself, and may even have been the result of his efforts to put pressure on Fashafuyeh Prison and the Iranian judiciary over their routine violations of laws establishing the principle of inmate separation.

According to those laws, Iranian prisoners are supposed to be grouped together according to the nature and severity of their crimes. As such, there are dedicated wings in major Iranian prisoners for persons who are detained on the basis of “national security” crimes involving political dissent, social activism, or the violation of hardline religious principles. Yet many such prisoners have been removed from those sections as a form of extrajudicial punishment and are forced to intermingle with persons accused of murder, armed robbery, and other serious crimes.

This was the case with Shir-Mohammad-Ali, and so he and a fellow political prisoner undertook a month-long hunger strike in protest over their treatment between March and April of this year. As well demanding the proper separation of prisoners, the two men also sought to call attention to the general human rights conditions and lack of security in the prison.

Shir-Mohammad-Ali had been sentenced to eight years in Fashafuyeh, also known as Greater Tehran Penitentiary, for “insulting the supreme leader” and other regime officials and for “spreading propaganda” by way of activism. He and fellow protester Barzan Mohammadi were by no means the only political prisoners to be incarcerated in this facility despite its traditional role as a detention center for persons convicted of serious drug crimes.

IHRM notes that Soheil Arabi is currently being held there as he serves more than seven years for criticizing the government on Facebook. Arabi has undertaken a number of hunger strikes not just in protest over his own situation but also over the fact that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has repeatedly harassed his wife and family while he remained behind bars. Similar treatment has been observed in the case of family members of Gonabadi dervishes who are also housed in Fashafuyeh.

Another report pointed out on Thursday that these dervishes, members of a Sufi religious order that is not recognized as a legitimate religious minority by Iran’s theocratic regime, had been brutalized by guards after they staged a sit-in to demand housing in their own war, apart from violent offenders. The report further explained that judicial authorities had categorized the dervishes as “rioters,” denying that there was any political or ideological basis for their collective gathering or organizing. This in turn served to justify physical assaults on a supposedly unruly inmate population.

In fact, it appears that unruliness among the broader population is at times attributable to instigation by authorities. The dervishes had accused prison guards of directing a campaign of violence against them by encouraging other prisoners to start fights, especially in cases where those prisoners already exhibit animosity toward the dervishes over their religious minority status.

In some cases, this behavior evidently leads to full-scale riots of the sort that the dervishes have been falsely accused of starting. According to IHRM’s description of the incident that led to Shir-Mohammad-Ali’s death, two inmates were paid to instigate a fight in the ward where he and Mohammadi were each being held in solitary confinement. This, together with the pre-arranged absence of prison guards, allowed for the two men, one of whom was already facing charges of murder, gained entry to the cells and stabbed Shir-Mohammad-Ali approximately 40 times.

In their letter responding to Shir-Mohammad-Ali’s death, political prisoners highlighted the facts of the case to illustrate their certainty regarding the involvement of prison authorities: “For people like us who have experienced being imprisoned in different wards and even solitary confinement, it is clear that the door to a solitary confinement [cell] cannot remain open for any prisoner. It goes without saying that prisoners cannot have knives in their cells.”

The letter then went on to reiterate the concerns that had been raised by Shir-Mohammad-Ali and Mohammadi, which the authorities presumably sought to silence via the attack. “The Prisons Association has… falsely claimed that political prisoners are not kept with dangerous criminals,” it said. “But there is too much evidence to the contrary.” This was followed by a list of more than a dozen political prisoners who are known to be detained alongside violent criminals, plus a list of 10 such prisoners who had previously been killed as a result of the practice.

The policy of non-separation has contributed to “mounting violence” in Greater Tehran Penitentiary, with no obvious end in sight. The signatories of the aforementioned letter similarly warned that this trend was likely to continue unless collective action was undertaken to address it. After calling for the prosecution of the guards who ordered Shir-Mohammad-Ali’s killing, the letter concluded by suggesting that inattention to his prior protests had set the stage for the incident.

“People ignored Alireza’s hunger strike and his frequent requests to be transferred to a prison ward dedicated to political inmates. They premeditated his murder and made it happen.”

Of course, as that murder itself makes clear, such activist statements come with a clear danger of retaliation. In fact, the Iranian regime has very recently demonstrated its willingness to crackdown specifically upon instances of public outrage stemming from clear cases of murder. On June 15, IHRM reported that no information had been made public about the whereabouts of a young man named Maysam Esmail Zehi since he was detained at the beginning of the month for taking part in a protest outside the office of the governor in Zahedan Province.

The demonstration had been organized in response to the killing of Mousa Shabakhsh by state security forces. Agents had given chase to Shabakhsh simply because he was suspected of driving without a license. But when he failed to stop, they fatally shot him. IHRM identified this incident as part of a familiar pattern of unjustified shootings, often carried out “under the pretext of smuggling and drug trafficking.” As with activist responses to the killing of Shir-Mohammad-Ali, the public response to the Shabakhsh case seems to reflect outrage over both the specific incident and the underlying policies of regime authorities. This may serve to further explain the crackdown, which entailed Zehi being arrested in absence of a warrant, his house ransacked in the process.

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