A group of Iranian MPs say they have visited Tehran’s notorious Evin prison as promised to check on the treatment of prisoners, especially those arrested during a recent wave of protests.
The head of parliament’s Judicial and Legal Commission Allahyar Malekshahi announced January 30 he had lead a group of eleven MPs on a tour of Evin prison after a previously scheduled visit was canceled due to “bad weather.”
Rights groups allege inmates at Evin prison are mistreated, beaten, and even killed.
A spate of inmate deaths in Iran’s prisons in recent weeks following protests over increasing economic hardships and lack of freedom that swept the country have led to public pressure on officials to investigate the deaths and treatment of prisoners.
In an interview with the state-run Iran Students News Agency (ISNA), Malekshahi said while at Evin prison the group of MPs viewed CCTV footage of the suicide of a young man who died while in custody at the prison.
Judiciary officials have claimed that 22-year-old Sina Ghanbari was a drug addict who committed suicide in one of Evin’s restrooms. Human rights activists allege that Ghanbari was arrested for protesting and was beaten to death.
Officials have refused to provide the footage they claim shows Ghanbari’s suicide to independent human rights groups, and former prisoners say Evin’s restrooms are always so crowded it would be impossible for someone to attempt suicide without attracting attention.
Citing statements of Ghanbari’s fellow prisoners, a committee of human rights defenders, formed to follow up on the cases of detained protesters, reported that Ghanbari was interrogated two days before his death.
“Ghanbari told other inmates that he had gone through ‘house cleaning’ [prison slang for being beaten up by guards],” the committee reported. “Ghanbari was badly battered to the extent that parts of his body were deeply bruised.”
According to the committee’s investigation, Ghanbari’s body was found on the restroom floor of Evin’s “Quarantine Block” on the morning of January 5 by a prisoner cleaning crew. Prisoners told the committee Ghanbari had a garbage bag wrapped around his neck.
Without referring to Ghanbari by name, Malekshahi told ISNA, “Concerning the guy who was arrested during the riots and there was talk of his suicide, we visited the spot where he committed suicide.”
In an interview with Radio Farda, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, prominent Pakistani lawyer Asma Jahangir, called on the Islamic Republic to present the CCTV footage officials claim shows Ghanbari’s suicide to be inspected by independent experts.
The MPs' visit to Evin hasn’t lifted the cloud of suspicion over the deaths of at least five prisoners in detention centers across Iran in recent weeks.
Mohammad Ali Vakili, one of the MPs allowed to visit Evin, said he and his fellow legislators had unanimously decided to refrain from elaborating on their visit.
“We are going to weigh the outcome of the visit in a session tomorrow (January 31) and then decide on our next step,” he said.
The MPs visit led by Allahyar Malekshahi was composed of representatives of the parliament’s board of directors and the Judicial and Legal Commission, as well as Mohammad Ali Vakili, Mohammad Dehqan, Mohammad Javad Fat’hei, Abdol-Karim Hosseinzadeh, Mohammad Mehdi Boroumandi, Valiollah Nanvakenari, Ezzcatollah Yousefian Molla, and Fatemeh Saeidi.
It is not yet clear why Iran’s judiciary took three weeks to approve the visit.
Deputy Speaker of Parliament Ali Motahari has insisted that the MPs' visit should not be limited to Evin prison since there have recently been reports of suspicious deaths in police custody in other Iranian cities, including 22-year-old merchant Vahid Heydari and Shehab Abtahizadeh in the city of Arak, Mohsen Adeli in Dezful, and Saro Ghahremani and Kianoush Zandi in the Kurdish majority city of Sanandaj in western Iran.
Iran’s intelligence and judicial authorities have maintained that none of those who recently died behind bars were arrested in connection to the anti-establishment uprising that broke out on December 28 and soon spread to more than 100 cities across Iran.
Officials say Sina Ghanbari and Vahid Heydari were arrested for dealing drugs, and Saro Gharemani was a member of a terrorist group and died in an armed clash with the security forces.
The MPs were only allowed to speak to four inmates arrested during the protests during their visit to Evin. Official figures now put the number of protestors detained in the recent unrest at 4,534.
Suspicious deaths in Iran’s prisons and detention centers are not uncommon.
During the 2009 uprising following the controversial election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, two young protesters, Mohsen Rouholamini and Amir Javadifar, were arrested and taken to the Kahrizak detention center near the capital, Tehran. The bodies of the two men were later delivered to their families.
The official medical report on Rouholamini’s death stated that he died of "physical stress, the effects of being held in bad conditions, multiple blows, and severe injuries to the body." The physician who wrote the report, DR. Ramin Pourandarjani, subsequently died under mysterious circumstances at a police station. The autopsy report for Javadifar also stated that his death was caused by blunt trauma injury from severe beating.
Rouholamini’s father happened to be a close ally of the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which may be the reason there was more transparency in the case and an investigation into the Kahrizak detention center, but the culprits eventually convicted in connection with Rouholamini’s death were given light sentences.
Human rights activists say the recent spate of deaths in police custody alarmingly mirrors events in 2009.