Political Prisoners Remain Behind Bars as COVID-19 Surges in Iran. This Activist Is Risking Her Life to Get Them Out

It was the acclaimed Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh whom activist Shaparak Shajarizadeh credit with saving her life. Detained in February 2018 for collaborating within the White Wednesday civil disobedience motion towards Iran’s necessary veiling legislation, Shajarizadeh was positioned in solitary confinement whereas Iranian authorities denied her entry to her lawyer. Launched, briefly detained once more the following month, and once more in Could whereas on vacation along with her son, she started a starvation strike, initially refusing water. “Nasrin got here to jail and advised me if you wish to go on a starvation strike, that’s okay, however drink water,” Shajarizadeh tells TIME from Toronto, the place she has lived in exile since September 2018.

A veteran of the 40-year-long combat for ladies’s rights in Iran, Sotoudeh provided extra than simply reassurance. Her advocacy focussed worldwide consideration on the circumstances of activists detained for protesting Iran’s obligatory hijab legislation. It was due to Sotoudeh’s work as an legal professional that Shajarizadeh was launched on bail in Could 2018. By the point an Iranian courtroom handed down an in absentia jail sentence of 20 years, Shajarizadeh had already left the nation along with her younger son. “Nasrin was a pillar for us girls at the moment,” Shajarizadeh says. “She would speak to the media about our circumstances; she made positive the world was watching.”

Two years on, Sotoudeh is the one risking her life in a starvation strike, whereas Shajarizadeh is attempting to verify the world pays consideration. Sotoudeh was arrested in June 2018 on ambiguous prices linked to her work as an legal professional, not lengthy after defending Shajarizadeh and different activists. She has since been incarcerated at Tehran’s infamous Evin Jail, becoming a member of different activists and intellectuals behind bars.

That is the second time in lower than six months that Sotoudeh has gone on a starvation strike to demand the discharge of Iran’s political detainees in the course of the world pandemic. She has as soon as once more “put her life on the road for imprisoned journalists, girls’s rights defenders, juveniles, attorneys, non secular minorities and environmentalists,” says Canada’s former justice minister Irwin Cotler, a part of the authorized crew representing Sotoudeh internationally, “Her braveness and dedication are unwavering.”

Iran is at the moment battling a surge in COVID-19 circumstances, and whereas it launched round 100,000 prisoners earlier this yr, most political prisoners stay behind bars. (The virus could be transmitted simply in prisons and the U.N. has urged governments world wide to free political detainees in the course of the pandemic.) For months, Sotoudeh has known as for Iran to launch her fellow prisoners of conscience. “Political [activists] have been accused of unbelievable acts: espionage, corruption on earth, undermining nationwide safety, prostitution, forming unlawful channels on [messaging app] Telegram which may maintain them behind bars for as much as 10 years and even result in execution,” Sotoudeh writes in a letter dated Aug. 11, seen by TIME. “From the very begin of the judicial course of during to sentencing, many suspects are denied impartial authorized illustration or prevented from unrestrained session with their attorneys.” She writes that since “all correspondences stay unanswered,” she determined to start out a starvation strike on Tuesday.

Fabrice Coffrini—AFP/Getty PhotosIranian girls’s rights activist Shaparak Shajarizadeh on the sidelines of The Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, in Geneva on Feb. 18, 2020.

Tehran’s Evin Jail has been Iran’s principal facility for the detention of prisoners of conscience since 1972. Months into Sotoudeh’s preliminary five-year sentence there, authorities convicted her in absentia on seven extra prices together with “propaganda towards the state,” “showing on the judiciary with out Islamic hijab,” and “encouraging prostitution.” That introduced her whole sentence to 38 years and added 148 lashes to her sentence. The heaviest of those extra prices was a 12-year time period for “selling immorality and indecency”, Sotoudeh wrote in an opinion piece for TIME on Worldwide Girls’s Day—Iran’s authorized system obliges her to serve it earlier than she is eligible for parole. Amnesty Worldwide has known as each of the trials at which Sotoudeh was convicted “grossly unfair.”

Her first starvation strike, starting March 16, began days after Iranian authorities introduced that they had quickly launched 85,000 prisoners. By the tip of April Iran had launched 100,000 prisoners as a part of what a spokesman for the nation’s judiciary known as “a major transfer” to guard prisoners’ well being. But political prisoners had been largely disregarded of the mass furlough and a whole bunch remained in crowded, unsanitary quarters the place social distancing was not possible.

As of Aug. 14, Iran had recorded over 19,000 deaths on account of the coronavirus pandemic, already the very best determine within the Center East. However in line with a BBC investigation printed on Aug. three the dying toll could possibly be triple that. And though Iranian officers have described their efforts to guard prisoners from the pandemic as “exemplary,” the U.N.’s Workplace of the Excessive Commissioner for Human Rights continues to boost considerations over Iran’s incarceration of prisoners of conscience, together with these reportedly in poor health with COVID-19 signs. Leaked letters obtained by Amnesty Worldwide in July present that the Iranian authorities has ignored repeated pleas from senior Iranian officers liable for managing the nation’s prisons for assets to regulate the unfold of COVID-19 and deal with contaminated prisoners. There are indicators the virus is spreading inside Evin: out of 17 inmates jail authorities lately examined in a single ward, 12 examined constructive for the virus, the Heart for Human Rights in Iran reported on Aug. 11.

Sotoudeh’s preliminary starvation strike, which lasted six days, was “extremely efficient”, in line with the Canada-based authorized crew that represents her internationally. “Iranian authorities launched prisoners in her ward whom she particularly requested be launched, some with well being points or weak immune methods,” says Yonah Diamond, a authorized counsel on the Toronto-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. (TIME couldn’t independently affirm a connection between Sotoudeh’s starvation strike and the discharge of particular prisoners.)

Nonetheless, Sotoudeh’s family and friends fear about her well being. Her husband Reza Khandan advised TIME in an announcement that for the kinfolk of detained activists “essentially the most troublesome days are when a member of the family goes on starvation strike.” Khandan additionally highlights the life-threatening dangers of declining meals, noting that Iran has had “dangerous experiences with starvation strikes amongst political prisoners in recent times.” In December 2018, activist Vahid Sayadi Nasiri, who was detained in Qom Jail, died in his cell after a 60-day starvation strike.

Shajarizadeh, the exiled girls’s rights activist, can perceive the bodily and psychological misery Sotoudeh is probably going now experiencing. Though she says the signs range from individual to individual, she acutely recollects the agony of her personal starvation strikes. The prospect of Sotoudeh enterprise one when her immune system may must combat a deadly virus fills Shajarizadeh with worry, she says, however she understands why it’s needed. “Generally, the one factor you’ve gotten [to fight with] is your life.”

Sotoudeh is among the Iranian girls’s rights activists featured in “40 Million,” a brief documentary from director Jeff Kaufman for TIME. It may be considered on the high of this web page.


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