Iranian political prisoners fear infection

Reza Khandan got the word from friends locked away in Iran’s most feared prison, Evin. A prisoner and a guard in their cell block had been removed because they were suspected of having coronavirus, and two guards in the women’s ward had shown symptoms.

It was frightening news. Khandan’s wife, Nasrin Sotoudeh, one of Iran’s most prominent human rights lawyers, is imprisoned in that ward in close quarters with 20 other women. Only days earlier, the 56-year-old Sotoudeh — known for defending activists, opposition politicians and women prosecuted for removing their headscarves — had held a five-day hunger strike demanding prisoners be released to protect them from the virus.

The virus has entered the jail, but we don’t know the extent of it,” Khandan, who had until recently been imprisoned in Evin as well, told The Associated Press by phone from Tehran.

“It will be impossible to control,” Khandan warned.

Tens of thousands of political prisoners are jailed in Iran, Syria and other countries around the Middle East, punished for anything from advocating for democracy and promoting women’s or workers’ rights to holding Islamist views, protesting or simply criticizing autocratic leaders on Facebook or YouTube.

Alarm is growing over the danger the coronavirus pandemic poses to prisoners: if one guard, visitor or new inmate introduces the infection, the virus could race rampant through a captive population unable to protect itself.

Conditions are prime for the disease to spread rapidly. Inmates are often packed by the dozens into dirty cells with no access to hygiene or medical care. Torture, poor nutrition and other abuses leave prisoners weaker and more vulnerable.

So far, Iran, which faces the Mideast’s biggest outbreak with thousands infected and hundreds dead, has not confirmed any coronavirus cases in its prisons. But Khandan’s is one of several reports of cases that have emerged from Iranian facilities.

The concern over prisons is worldwide. Multiple countries — including Iran — have released some inmates to reduce crowding. Others say they are sterilizing cells, halting family visits or increasing monitoring of guards and staff. Riots have broken out in prisons in several countries among inmates fearful not enough is being done.

He said the ICRC has already begun distributing soap, disinfectant and protective equipment at prisons in several places in the Mideast. It has requested permission from Syria to do the same in its facilities and is hopeful it will get access, he said.

Syria is the darkest black hole in the region. In the long civil war, tens of thousands of activists, protesters and others have been swallowed with hardly a trace into prisons run by President Bashar Assad’s government.

Syria has confirmed nine cases of coronavirus and one death, none of them in its prisons.

If coronavirus were spreading within prison walls, it’s doubtful the outside world would find out, said Dr. Amani Ballour, who previously ran a hospital in a rebel-held enclave near the Syrian capital, Damascus.

“The regime doesn’t care,” she said. “If there is (an outbreak), they won’t declare it because they’re killing detainees anyway — or trying to.” Ballour has searched in vain for her brother and brother-in-law in Syrian prisons for nine years. “I don’t imagine anyone surviving the regime prisons,” she said.

Conditions inside are perhaps the most terrifying in the region. Rights groups and former detainees describe Syria’s detention facilities as slaughterhouses where detainees undergo constant torture, including beatings, burnings, electric shocks, mutilations and rapes. Authorities almost never confirm arrests, and detainees are kept incommunicado out of the regular prison system.

As many as 50 people are locked in a 4-by-6-meter cell for weeks, month and years — sleeping on top of each other, almost never allowed to bathe, given meager and rotten food and dirty water. Amnesty International estimated 17,723 people were killed in custody across Syria between 2011 and 2015, with the actual number likely higher. There’s no reason to believe conditions have changed since, said Amnesty’s Lynn Maalouf.

There is a “deliberate policy of letting people die of illness,” said Mohammad al-Abdallah, head of the Washington-based Syria Justice and Accountability Center. The overcrowded, dirty cells are “exactly the formula a disease like corona needs to grow,” he said.

The U.S. State Department last week warned that an outbreak in the Syria’s prison would “have devastating impact” and demanded Damascus free all arbitrarily detained civilians — including Americans.

Among the detained Americans is Majd Kamalmaz, who vanished a day after entering Syria in February 2017 to visit family for the first time in six years. A 62-year-old clinical psychologist from Virginia, he was not involved in politics and was engaged in international humanitarian work.

“To this day we don’t know why they detained him,” his daughter Maryam said.

At her home outside Dallas, Texas, Maryam’s family are taking all precautions against the pandemic: she and her children haven’t left the house for days and her husband goes out only to get groceries. She worries about her mother, alone in an apartment nearby. Majd’s disappearance “truly affected her health and she gets sick very easily now,” Maryam said.

“We are very, very concerned” that her father could contract coronavirus, she said. He is diabetic and had a stroke and a heart attack.

In January, a contact in Syria told the family that Kamalmaz had been moved from his prison, but they have no idea why or where to. He may have been put under closer observation amid pressure by American and European officials for his release.

“We know that the Syrian regime doesn’t care much about human life and the idea of them saying oh yes he might have passed with the coronavirus and not really caring much is very worrisome to us,” Maryam said.

In Iran, authorities say they have temporarily freed some 100,000 inmates — around half the prison population, in a sign of their alarm at the outbreak.

But hundreds of prisoners of conscience and other dissidents remain imprisoned, Amnesty said. It said there have been multiple reports of coronavirus cases within Iran’s prisons, including two deaths, though the government has not confirmed any.

Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American businessman who was not among those released, has reported “multiple cases on his hallway” in Evin Prison, his Washington-based lawyer, Jared Genser, has said.

Source » theportal-center

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