The number of “suicides” in Iran’s prisons is rising, based on the latest reports. This should ring alarm bells within the international community and human rights groups.A few weeks ago, according to Iranian state-owned media outlets, a 22-year-old man who was arrested during the recent anti-regime protests died in police custody. His death stirred anger among many Iranians, who expressed their feelings on social media.
Later, the authorities announced that Vahid Heydari, a street peddler, killed himself in prison. The next young prisoner to die was Sina Ghanbari, a 23-year-old student. According to the Iranian regime, Ghanbari hanged himself in a bathroom in Evin Prison, which is known as the most notorious jail in Iran. Saru Ghahremani, a 24-year-old Iranian-Kurd, was also found dead in the city of Sanandaj.
Generally speaking, Iranian people express skepticism about so-called “suicides” and the “natural deaths” of people in police custody or in prison. For example, Iranian celebrity actress Bahareh Rahnama wrote on Twitter: “This kid (Ghahremani) was neither political nor a protester, nor a rebel, nor an outlaw, he had simple but big wishes for himself: Like making his mother happy! Why should he be killed?”
Most recently, Iran’s judiciary announced that Iranian-Canadian environmentalist Kavous Seyed-Emami committed suicide in prison due to the evidence of spying against him.
It is worth noting that these are only the cases of deaths and suicides reported by the Iranian regime. The unofficial number is believed to be much higher.
The regime has generally brushed off the deaths of detainees as suicides without providing any credible evidence. These so-called suicides ought to be viewed with grave suspicion. First of all, when the Iranian authorities arrest people, the regime’s constitution does not allow detainees to have access to a lawyer during the initial phase of questioning. This provides the perfect cover for the regime’s forces to commit human rights violations, such as obtaining forced confessions or torturing detainees; actions that have been documented by Amnesty International.
Secondly, family members of the dead detainees strongly believe that their relatives would not commit suicide, and some have reported that the regime forces the victims to take pills, which make them sick. For example, Seyed-Emami’s son wrote on Instagram: “The news of my father’s passing is impossible to fathom. Kavous Seyed-Emami was arrested on Wednesday 24 January 2018, and the news of his death was released to my mom, Maryam, on Friday the 9th of February. They say he committed suicide. I still can’t believe this.”
The United Nations Human Rights Council must fulfill its duty by preventing atrocities in Iran’s prisons and holding the regime accountable for its human rights abuses.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Even if the authorities do not directly kill the prisoners, the torture inflicted on them may ultimately lead to their death or cause severe, life-long health issues. For example, the treatment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian mother who is approaching 700 days in prison, amounts to torture, her family has said while making an appeal for the United Nations to intervene in her case.
The Iranian regime can achieve several objectives with the deaths of some prisoners. First of all, it sends a strong message to society that any opposition may be answered with the ultimate penalty. Secondly, widely reporting the shocking news of so-called suicides on state TV and newspapers is aimed at imposing fear.
Dual nationals are mostly being arrested to be used as bargaining chips with other governments. If the Iranian regime does not achieve its political or economic goals, the prisoners will most likely languish and die in prison. One prominent example was Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian freelance photographer, who was arrested in Iran and, according to a medical examiner, was raped, tortured and beaten to death by Iranian officials.
This is most likely done to prevent prisoners from disclosing the torture they endured in detention, as well as to force other governments to submit to Tehran’s demands the next time one of their citizens is arrested in Iran.
Iranian authorities often point out that they will establish an independent committee to investigate the deaths of detainees, but such “independent” investigators lack credibility and legitimacy because they are selected by the regime’s judiciary system.
The Iranian regime is committing egregious human rights violations with impunity. It is the responsibility of the international community and specifically the United Nations Human Rights Council to fulfill its duty by preventing such atrocities in Iran’s prisons and holding the regime accountable for its human rights abuses and the so-called “suicides” happening regularly in its prisons.
• 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