A major area that requires more global attention is the plight of political prisoners, journalists and human rights activists in jail. Specifically, what is happening to them behind the walls of Iran’s prisons?
Last month, inmates in Hall 12 of Gohardasht prison, also known as Rajai Shahr, 20km west of Tehran, were subjected to a violent and unexplained raid that led to more than 50 prisoners being transferred to Hall 10, where conditions and treatment were even worse.
Hall 10 had been newly renovated before the raid, apparently with the explicit intention of putting more pressure on the prisoners of conscience who the Iranian regime was planning to transfer there.The prisoners are subject to 24-hour video and audio surveillance, even inside private cells and bathrooms. Windows have been covered over with metal sheeting, reducing airflow during summer in a place already known for its inhumane and unhygienic conditions.
In addition, the raid involved the confiscation or outright theft of virtually all the inmates’ personal belongings, including prescription medication. Since then, prison authorities have denied the prisoners access to medical treatment and have even blocked the delivery of expensive medication purchased for them by families outside the prison. Withholding medical treatment is a well-established tactic by Iranian authorities to exert pressure on political prisoners, especially those who continue activism from jail or strive to expose the conditions that political prisoners and other detainees face.
Despite the fact that their newfound stress and lack of sanitation already threatened to have a severe impact on their health, more than a dozen of the raid’s victims immediately organized a hunger strike and declared that the protest would continue until they were transferred back to their former surroundings and had their belongings returned to them.
Others joined the protest, and at the last count 22 detainees were participating in the hunger strike, most of them serving sentences for political crimes such as supporting the leading banned opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran. The core group have been starving themselves for approximately a month now, and their health has predictably deteriorated.
Heart, kidney, and lung ailments have been reported, and the prisoners are approaching the point at which they may start dying. Nonetheless, neither the Gohardasht authorities nor the Iranian judiciary have shown any sign of responding to their demands or publicly addressing the severity of the crisis. What is worse, the international community has not been much more attentive.
Shocking events at Gohardasht prison west of Tehran show that Hassan Rouhani’s promises on human rights are worthless.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
There has been virtually no push by Western governments or the United Nations to put pressure on the Iranian regime to save the lives of the Gohardasht inmates. This is particularly disappointing in light of the recent shifts in Western policies toward Iran, which come after years of conciliation and neglect for human rights while the United States and its allies focused their attention narrowly on the nuclear issue and prospective trade deals.
During that time, various human rights activists rightly criticized the world community for putting certain matters of Iran policy on the back burner even though they had an immediate impact on the lives and safety of potentially millions of Iranian citizens. It has been widely reported that Tehran has been cracking down with escalating intensity on journalists, activists, and other “undesirables,” swelling the ranks of its political prisoners.
For all their resilience in the face of violent repression, the Iranian people have precious little outside support that they can rely on. Every global policymaker and every prominent human rights activist has a responsibility to prove this conclusion wrong.
Organizations such as the National Council of Resistance of Iran have vigorously responded to the hunger strikes by calling for the United Nations high commissioner on human rights and the special rapporteurs on torture and on human rights in Iran to issue public statements and initiate a coordinated strategy that will impose serious penalties on the Iranian regime if it does not address the plight of the Gohardasht hunger strikers.
There is a desperate need for international inquiries into this and other human rights abuses in Iran. In fact, while the Gohardasht situation is urgent, once an adequate international response is made, it should be a template inquiries into crimes against humanity that no one in the mullahs’ regime has ever answered for.
In the summer of 1988, about 30,000 political prisoners were hanged simply for suspected loyalties to anti-theocratic resistance groups, mainly the PMOI. The incident was largely ignored in Western media, and despite a handful of statements over the years, no serious inquiry has been launched to identify the locations of the secretly buried victims or to pursue charges against those responsible, many of whom retain positions of influence to this day.
Although that was the single worst act of repression against Iran’s political prisoners, the Gohardasht hunger strikes show that the overall pattern of repression remains unchanged, while the clerical regime remains as indifferent to human suffering as it ever has been. It goes without saying that the international community as a whole is better than this; but that community must act accordingly and intervene when Iran’s political violence threatens to claim new victims.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh