By Raha Bahreini, Amnesty International’s researcher on Iran
A photograph showing the heavily bandaged face of a prominent Iranian journalist and former prisoner of conscience who was denied adequate medical care for four years while he was in prison, has gone viral on Persian language social media sites in recent days, triggering a huge wave of sympathy and outrage among Iranians.
Just over a week ago Alireza Rejaee had to undergo surgery to have his right eye and parts of his upper jaw and cheek removed to prevent the spread of sinus cancer.
His family said that despite complaining of pain and pressure repeatedly during the years he was held at Evin Prison in Tehran, the prison authorities prevented him from accessing specialist medical treatment outside the prison that could potentially have stopped his cancer from spreading. He was released in 2015 after completing his prison sentence.
The haunting image, which shows him lying in a hospital bed looking frail with bandages covering half of his face, encapsulates the cruelty of Iran’s criminal justice system and has yet again thrown a spotlight on the callous treatment of political prisoners in the country’s jails.
Sadly, Alireza Rejaee’s story is all too common in Iran where the authorities toy with the health and lives of prisoners by ignoring their medical needs. Those detained for their peaceful activism are particularly targeted.
In a similar case in April 2016, Omid Kokabee, a 33-year-old physicist sentenced to 10 years in prison, had to have his right kidney surgically removed after it became badly damaged due to cancer.
He had complained of kidney problems for nearly five years but the authorities repeatedly denied him a chance to receive treatment outside of prison and refused his requests to be released on medical grounds.
An Amnesty International report published in July 2016 revealed that as well as deliberately delaying or refusing urgent specialized medical care to political prisoners, prison authorities in Iran have regularly downplayed or dismissed the seriousness of their medical problems, treated serious ailments with simple painkillers and withheld essential medication.
Iran’s prisons are notoriously harsh. Prisoners are usually held in overcrowded, unsanitary and poorly ventilated conditions. This, combined with the denial of adequate medical care, often exacerbates prisoners’ pre-existing medical problems or contributes to new problems, causing irreparable damage to their health.
Most recently, alarming reports have emerged from Karaj’s Raja’i Shahr prison near Tehran where authorities are denying access to adequate medical care for more than a dozen individuals who have been on hunger strike since 30 July in protest at their inhumane detention conditions. They say they are held in an area of the prison where the windows are covered by metal sheets and there is no air ventilation system. They are forced to sleep on the ground while the authorities continue to deprive them of access to adequate food, safe drinking water and telephone contact with their families.
Several have suffered a deterioration in their health and some have fainted or briefly lost consciousness in recent days.
According to family members of those on hunger strike, the head of the prison instructed prison doctors to not provide any additional medical care or monitoring to those taking part in the strike.
Some of the hunger striking prisoners were transferred to solitary confinement for several days in reprisal for their peaceful protest and 11 of them have since been charged with several offences “insulting the Supreme Leader” and could face additional prison terms.
In a number of cases, the denial of medical care has been used as a deliberate punishment by the authorities to inflict severe pain and suffering on the prisoner or to extract forced “confessions”. This amounts to torture under international law and those responsible must face criminal prosecution.
Zeynab Jalalian, a 35-year-old Iranian Kurdish political prisoner who is serving a life sentence in Khoy prison, West Azerbaijan Province, has needed surgery since 2014 for a severe eye condition that doctors have warned is impairing her eyesight. However, the authorities have persistently refused to implement the medical advice and transfer her to a hospital for the operation. Over the past two years, she has also been denied diagnostic testing and adequate treatment for her heart problems, intestinal and kidney complications, and oral thrush, which has hindered her ability to eat and swallow.
Arash Sadeghi, 30, who is serving a 19-year sentence imposed for his entirely peaceful human rights work, is another critically ill prisoner who is being tortured through the denial of adequate medical care. Doctors have advised that he requires long-term hospitalization in order to receive specialist treatment for his worsening digestive complications and respiratory problems, which were caused by his prolonged hunger strike and exacerbated by ongoing lack of adequate medical care.
These heart-breaking stories of cruelty behind closed doors in Iran’s prison cells receive little global attention. In fact, Iran’s authorities have gone to extreme efforts to publicly counter negative reports about the country’s prison conditions.
In May 2016, they aired a propaganda video which attempted to discredit reports of Zeynab Jalalian’s denial of access to medical care. She was shown in the video saying that the reports that she is sick and losing her sight are not true and that her medical problems have been minor. Her sister subsequently told Amnesty International that she was coerced into making those statements.
In July 2017, in another crude public relations stunt, Iran’s authorities arranged a visit to one of the country’s most infamous jails, Evin Prison, in Tehran for diplomatic representatives from more than 40 countries.
World powers, including the EU, which have taken steps to strengthen their ties with Iran since the nuclear deal was signed in 2016 have a crucial role to play in ensuring that this ruthless treatment ends now. They must publicly call on the Iranian authorities to ensure that all prisoners receive access to adequate medical care.
They must also demand that the Iranian authorities grant access to international monitors including the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, so they can carry out inspections of all the country’s prisons.
In the absence of any signs that the Iranian authorities have any intention of changing their ways, it’s up to the rest of us to ensure that the daily suffering of prisoners at the hand of Iran’s cruel prison system is not forgotten.
This article was first published by Middle East Eye here