Geneva (6 October 2020) – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Tuesday expressed deep concern at the deteriorating situation of human rights defenders, lawyers and political prisoners held in Iran's prisons and called on the authorities to release them in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Iran is the country most affected by COVID-19 in the region. Its prison system suffers from chronic overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions that have worsened during the pandemic. Shortages of water, hygiene products and disinfectant, insufficient protective equipment and testing kits as well as a lack of isolation spaces and inadequate medical care have led to the spread of the virus among detainees and have reportedly resulted in a number of deaths.
In February, the Iranian judiciary issued directives on temporary releases to reduce the prison population and avoid further spread of the virus. Some 120,000 inmates benefited from such schemes, according to official figures. These schemes appear to have been suspended, and prisoners have been required to return in large numbers. In addition, people sentenced to more than five years in prison for "national security" offences have been excluded.
As a result, most of those who may have been arbitrarily detained -- including human rights defenders, lawyers, dual and foreign nationals, conservationists, and others deprived of their liberty for expressing their views or exercising other rights -- have been placed at a heightened risk of contracting the virus.
"Under international human rights law, States are responsible for the well-being, as well as the physical and mental health, of everyone in their care, including everyone deprived of their liberty," Bachelet said. "People detained solely for their political views or other forms of activism in support of human rights should not be imprisoned at all, and such prisoners, should certainly not be treated more harshly or placed at greater risk."
"I am disturbed to see how measures designed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 have been used in a discriminatory way against this specific group of prisoners," she added.
One of the most emblematic cases is that of prominent human rights lawyer and women's rights defender Nasrin Sotoudeh, who received a combined sentence of over 30 years in prison on charges related to her human rights work. In protest against the continued use of arbitrary detention, as well as inadequate medical care in prison, Sotoudeh began a second hunger strike in August, which ended after nearly 50 days due to her rapidly deteriorating health. Her heart condition requires specialized treatment.
"I am very concerned that Nasrin Sotoudeh's life is at risk," the UN Human Rights Chief said. "Once again, I urge the authorities to immediately release her and grant her the possibility of recuperating at home before undergoing the medical treatment of her choice. Over the years, she has been a persistent and courageous advocate for the rights of her fellow Iranians, and it is time for the Government to cease violating her own rights because of the efforts she has made on behalf of others."
The High Commissioner expressed her concern about the persistent and systematic targeting of individuals who express any dissenting view, and the criminalization of the exercise of fundamental rights.
"It is disheartening to see the use of the criminal justice system as a tool to silence civil society. Expressing dissent is not a crime. It is a fundamental right that should be protected and upheld," Bachelet said.
"I urge the Iranian Government to review, in light of Iran's international legal obligations -- including the right to a fair trial -- all sentences of people detained without sufficient legal basis. And I call for the unconditional release of human rights defenders, lawyers, political prisoners, peaceful protesters and all other individuals deprived of their liberty for expressing their views or otherwise exercising their rights," the High Commissioner said. "It is particularly important to rectify such injustices at a time when COVID-19 is coursing through Iran's prisons."