The BBC’s Persian service revealed on 3 August that leaked Iranian government data showed that the real death toll from Covid-19 in Iran was nearly 42,000 – three times the figure of 14,400 that the Iranian health ministry gave on 20 July.
Concern about the overall public health situation in Iran is now very high, especially in the 18 or so provinces still on red alert, but the plight of those held in its overcrowded prisons, where social distancing is impossible for most inmates, is even more worrying. No figures have been published about Covid-19 infections and deaths in Iran’s prisons.
Many of Iran’s prisoners of conscience, including 19 journalists and citizen-journalists and some of their close relatives, continue to be held, while others are still being arrested. They include Nada Sabouri, a former journalist and civil society activist who was arrested by representatives of the Tehran prosecutor’s office on 7 August and was taken to Evin prison to serve a sentence of three and a half years in prison. Her husband Sohrab Salehin, who is also a journalist, is supposed to report to the prosecutor’s office at Evin prison to serve the same sentence.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a doctor who works in a prison in Tehran province confirmed to RSF that the prison system was incapable of dealing with the situation resulting from the pandemic.
“For an infectious disease such as Covid-19, we need not only resources but also an appropriate health policy,” he said. “The only thing the prison authorities do is isolate the sick or transfer them to other wings of the prison.” Detainees with Covid-19 should be released so that they can receive the necessary treatment “or at least die with dignity in their family,” he added.
Several prisoners of conscience have begun a hunger strike in various prisons. They include Nasrin Sotoudeh, a lawyer who has defended many journalists and who was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2012. Sotoudeh has refused to eat since 10 August in protest against her current situation and those of other political prisoners. Her husband reports that her physical condition had deteriorated dramatically and that she has been transferred to the prison’s clinic.
Detained since June 2018, Sotoudeh was sentenced by a Tehran revolutionary court to a total of 33 years in prison, including a 12-year security sentence and 148 lashes for “inciting debauchery.” Her daughter, Mehraveh Khandan, was detained for several hours on 17 August and then released on bail. “Without doubt, this was to put pressure on me and make me submit,” Sotoudeh said.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran has been one of the world’s worst countries as regards cracking down on freedom of the press in connection with the pandemic,” said Reza Moini, the head of RSF’s Iran-Afghanistan desk. “In the light of the recently revealed figures and the government’s continuing denial of the gravity of the health crisis, we can only be extremely concerned about the situation of detainees in general and journalists in particular. We therefore call on Javaid Rehman, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, to do everything possible to visit Iran’s prisons and report on the situation.”
Ever since March, RSF has been condemning the cover-up about the spread of Covid-19 and the crackdown on independent reporting in Iran, but media outlets and journalists continue to pay the price of the government’s lies.
The daily Jahan Sanat (Industry World) was suspended on 10 August by the Committee for Press Authorization and Surveillance, the censorship wing of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. The newspaper’s editor said it was sanctioned for publishing an interview with a public health specialist under the headline, “The government’s coronavirus case figures cannot be trusted.”
Iran is ranked 173rd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.