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

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 regulation, 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 Might 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 battle for girls’s rights in Iran, Sotoudeh supplied extra than simply reassurance. Her advocacy focussed worldwide consideration on the instances of activists detained for protesting Iran’s obligatory hijab regulation. It was due to Sotoudeh’s work as an legal professional that Shajarizadeh was launched on bail in Might 2018. By the point an Iranian court docket 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 discuss to the media about our instances; 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 ensure the world pays consideration. Sotoudeh was arrested in June 2018 on ambiguous fees related 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, spiritual minorities and environmentalists,” says Canada’s former justice minister Irwin Cotler, a part of the authorized workforce representing Sotoudeh internationally, “Her braveness and dedication are unwavering.”

Iran is presently battling a surge in COVID-19 instances, and whereas it launched round 100,000 prisoners earlier this yr, most political prisoners stay behind bars. (The virus might be transmitted simply in prisons and the U.N. has urged governments around the globe 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 right through to sentencing, many suspects are denied unbiased 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 PicturesIranian 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 most important 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 fees together with “propaganda towards the state,” “showing on the judiciary with out Islamic hijab,” and “encouraging prostitution.” That introduced her complete sentence to 38 years and added 148 lashes to her sentence. The heaviest of those extra fees was a 12-year time period for “selling immorality and indecency”, Sotoudeh wrote in an opinion piece for TIME on Worldwide Ladies’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 briefly launched 85,000 prisoners. By the top of April Iran had launched 100,000 prisoners as a part of what a spokesman for the nation’s judiciary known as “a big transfer” to guard prisoners’ well being. But political prisoners had been principally unnoticed of the mass furlough and a whole lot remained in crowded, unsanitary quarters the place social distancing was unimaginable.

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 accordance with a BBC investigation revealed 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 unwell 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 chargeable for managing the nation’s prisons for sources 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 just 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 accordance with the Canada-based authorized workforce 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 techniques,” 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 a press release that for the kinfolk of detained activists “essentially the most tough 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 “unhealthy experiences with starvation strikes amongst political prisoners lately.” 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 differ from individual to individual, she acutely remembers the agony of her personal starvation strikes. The prospect of Sotoudeh endeavor one when her immune system may have to battle a deadly virus fills Shajarizadeh with concern, she says, however she understands why it’s vital. “Generally, the one factor you will have [to fight with] is your life.”

Sotoudeh is without doubt one of the Iranian girls’s rights activists featured in “40 Million,” a brief documentary from director Jeff Kaufman for TIME. It may be seen on the prime of this web page.