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Leaked Iran Judiciary Letters Claim Government Ignored Requests For Coronavirus Aid To Prisons

Small rally of families of workers detained for participation in protests in front of Tehran's notorious Evin Prison. Undated photo.

Amnesty International on Friday released the text of four letters from the hardliner-dominated Judiciary's Prisons Organization written to the health ministry requesting coronavirus aid to prisons, which the government left unanswered.

The letters which were made public for the first time by Amnesty were sent to the ministry between late February and early July in connection with the spread of COVID-19 in Iran's prisons and raise the alarm over serious shortages of protective equipment, disinfectant essential medical devices, and seek urgent funding and assistance.

Iran officially announced the breakout of coronavirus on February 19 and was the second country in the world after China with a major epidemic.

On March 3, the Iranian Judiciary temporarily freed 54,000 inmates to prevent the spread of the virus in prisons and raised the number of furloughed prisoners to 100,000 on March 29. On June 13, Asghar Jahangir, the outgoing head of the Prisons Organization, said the number of prisoners in the country stands at 211,000 of which 128,000 were allowed to go on furlough for coronavirus by mid-May.

However, on April 10, 2019 Hossein Pourmand, an official of the Prisons Organization said prisons were overcrowded by nearly 28 percent more than their capacity.

Despite many pleas from Iranian and international human rights organizations the Judiciary has refused to allow political prisoners and prisoners of conscience to go on furlough despite the catastrophic situation in prisons such as Evin and Qarchak where sanitary conditions are dangerous. Moreover, several political prisoners including the prominent rights activist Narges Mohammadi who have contracted the virus have been refused proper medical care.

Judiciary Spokesman Gholam-Hossein Esmaili on 21 April dismissed the pleas as "politically motivated" and even claimed that Iran’s performance in dealing with the issue — compared with that of the West — has been “exemplary among all systems of government”.

The second letter from the head of the Health Department of the Prisons Organization to the Health Ministry dated March 25 lists urgently required disinfectant products and protective equipment to last three months.

The items requested by the Prisons Organization include “5,400,000 masks, 100,000 N95 masks, 3,600,000 latex gloves, 10,000,000 plastic gloves, 450,000 litres of hand sanitizers and 1,000,000 litres of surface disinfectant, 5,000 face shields, 5,000 protective goggles, 5,000 protective gowns, 300 air ventilation systems and 250 de-infestation machines” as well as pulse oximeters, glucometers, thermometers, UV lamp systems, autoclaves machines for sterilization, and several other types of medical equipment.

The letter warns that “security hazards” and “irreparable harm” will result from inaction, particularly considering that Iran’s prisons are “populated with individuals who have pre-existing medical problems, use drugs, and/or suffer from malnutrition, anaemia, and infectious diseases such as HIV, hepatitis and tuberculosis”.

Another letter dated May 12 thanks the ministry for offering consultation on controlling the epidemic but states that the organization's budget is not sufficient for controlling the spread of the virus in prisons and requests financial assistance while the fourth letter dated June 14 complains that despite several correspondences the ministry has not provided any cash or equipment to the Prisons Organization.

The Judiciary receives an annual budget from the government which is usually between 1.5 to 2 percent of the national budget but also has other substantial sources of funding including huge sums in government bonds deposited in its accounts the interest of which can be withdrawn to supplement its funding requirements.

It is not clear why the Judiciary has not used its own funds to supply prisons with hygiene and health supplies needed.

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    Maryam Sinaiee

    Maryam Sinaiee is a British-Iranian journalist, political analyst and former correspondent of The National, who contributes to Radio Farda.