Parliament Faction Links Lacking Accountability to Deaths of Political Prisoners in State Custody
Defense Attorney: Firing Prison Officials Won’t Keep Political Prisoners Safe
One month after political prisoner Alireza Shirmohammadali was murdered in the Greater Tehran Central Penitentiary (GTCP) after being unlawfully held in a ward with inmates convicted of violent crimes, two prison officials have been fired while the unofficial policy that precipitated the tragedy remains in place.
The results of a judicial investigation into his death have not been made public. But a parliamentary faction has created a proposal to help counter what it identified as the “serious problem” of prisoners dying in state custody.
A Tehran-based defense attorney who has represented political prisoners told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) that firing officials without ensuring that prisoners are held in safe conditions means more preventable deaths could occur.
“The question is, why has nothing been done to separate the political prisoners now that this has become an issue?” said the lawyer who requested anonymity for security reasons.
“Well, the judiciary’s spokesman Mr. Esmaili has said we don’t have any political prisoners in Iran and therefore it’s not an issue,” added the attorney. “Of course, that’s only his personal opinion; the law clearly defines political prisoners.”
According to Article 2 of Iran’s Political Crimes Law, individuals can be imprisoned for various peaceful acts including “insulting or slandering the heads of three branches of state, the chairman of the Expediency Council, vice presidents, ministers, members of Parliament, members of the Assembly of Experts and members of the Guardian Council” as well as “publishing falsehoods.”
Political prisoners in Iran are also arrested and prosecuted under “national security” related charges for peaceful actions including removing their headscarves in public or defending political prisoners as lawyers.
During a press conference on July 1, Gholamhossein Esmaili said, “We don’t have political prisoners. These people committed crimes against national security.”
He also stated that the law requiring the separation of prisoners on the basis of their convictions had been carried out “to an acceptable degree, especially in Tehran.”
According to Iranian law, prisons are required to divide prisoners according to the nature of their convictions.
Article 69 of the State Prisons Organization’s regulations states: “All convicts, upon being admitted to walled prisons or rehabilitation centers, will be separated based on the type and duration of their sentence, prior record, character, morals and behavior, in accordance with decisions made by the Prisoners Classification Council.”
But political prisoners continue to be transferred to and held in prisons and wards with inmates convicted of violent crimes or with substance abuse issues.
For example, the GTCP was built in 2015 primarily for holding suspects and inmates convicted of drug-related offenses. But the judiciary has also used it to unlawfully incarcerate peaceful activists and dissidents including Shirmohammadali.
Treating the Symptoms, Not the Problem
After Iranian activists and human rights organizations condemned the circumstances of Shirmohammadali’s death, two officials were dismissed. But the Iranian government has not implemented measures to ensure that other political prisoners would not also be put in harm’s way.
On June 20, 2019, the head of the State Prisons Organization (SPO) in Tehran Province, Mostafa Mohebbi, was dismissed and replaced by Heshmatollah Hayatolgheyb, who formerly headed the SPO’s office in Fars Province.
The SPO, which has offices in every province, is responsible for prisoners in Iran and operates under the judiciary, which means it cannot be investigated by Parliament.
The director of the GTCP (also known as Fashafouyeh Prison), Hedayat Farzadi, was fired on July 1.
On July 2, the state-funded Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported that Mohebbi’s removal was the result of an investigation carried out by a committee set up by the judiciary to look into Shirmohammadali’s death.
The results of that investigation have not been made public.
Arrested on July 15, 2018, Shirmohammadali was allegedly stabbed to death by a convicted drug trafficker with the help of a fellow convict, a source with detailed knowledge of the circumstances of Shirmohammadali’s death told CHRI in June 2019.
Shirmohammadali had been sentenced in February 2019 to eight years in prison for the charges of “insulting the sacred,” “insulting the supreme leader” and “propaganda against the state” and was awaiting the result of his appeal before his death.
Three months prior to being stabbed, he had gone on hunger strike in protest against the prison’s unsafe conditions.
It is not clear whether Mohebbi and Farzadi, who were fired after Shirmohammadali’s death, have been banned from government service or transferred to other state positions.
Little is known about the new SPO chief in Tehran. But during Hayatolgheyb’s tenure as the SPO head in Fars Province, political prisoner Mehdi Hajati was incarcerated in Adelabad Prison in a ward with prisoners convicted of dangerous crimes.
Between 2003-18, at least 29 political prisoners died in Iranian state custody, according to investigations by CHRI. That number does not include deaths by execution.
The deaths occurred as a result of beatings while in custody, denial of critically needed medical care, or other gross negligence on the part of the authorities. Only two of the cases were taken to court, leading to just seven prosecutions.
The lack of prosecutions is enabled by a judiciary that allows intelligence and prison officials to act with impunity and the absence of mandatory investigations, autopsies or publicly available medical examiner’s reports when a death occurs in state custody.
Parliamentary Faction Proposes Way to Counter Lacking Accountability in Iranian Prisons
After Shirmohammadali’s death, Abdolkarim Hosseinzadeh, the head of the Citizens Rights Faction in Iran’s Parliament, wrote to newly appointed Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi on June 16 stating that the incident “was a sign of a very serious problem” in the country’s prisons and detention centers.
“In order to cure a disease we first have to admit its existence and then tackle it without any bias,” Hosseinzadeh said in his letter.
“After the reported deaths of several individuals in prison in 2018, we, as the people’s representatives, insisted on visiting Evin Prison and other facilities and detention centers… and as a result of the visits, as well as meetings with some of the prisoners’ families, we concluded that the missing link is the lack of a supervisory organization independent of the prison system.”
The letter continued: “The Citizens Rights Faction’s solution to the problem was a proposal to move the SPO from the judiciary to the Justice Ministry … under the close supervision of judicial and legislative branches.
Currently, the SPO only answers to the judiciary and cannot be investigated by Parliament.
It is not clear how far the parliamentary proposal has gone in the legislative process.
At least six political prisoners died in Iranian state custody in 2018 under suspicious circumstances. The State Prisons Organization and the judiciary to which it reports are responsible for keeping prisoners safe but to date no organization or individual has been held responsible for the deaths.
In an interview with the reformist Kaleme website on June 26, Shirmohammadali’s mother, Mahnaz Sorabi, said she had been left with several unanswered questions about her son’s death.
“Tell Mr. Raisi that I’m seeking justice for my son’s blood. I want to know what hands were involved behind the scenes,” Sorabi said.
“Why was the director of the prison negligent? … Where is the security camera footage? Why did the prison guards show up after my son was bleeding for seven minutes? Why was my young, 21-year-old son butchered? For what crime?” she asked.