Political prisoners in Tehran are being systematically starved by the authorities to break their will and force them to repent. Terrified of another uprising that could sweep the theocratic dictatorship from power, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and the Chief of the Judiciary Ebrahim Raisi, have ordered a severe crackdown on all inmates jailed for opposing the mullahs’ regime. Thousands are now suffering from severe food shortages. Eggs have been removed from prison diets and prisoners are now given only 10 to 12 spoonfuls of low-quality rice daily. The rice is said to be stinking and rotten. Prisoners can purchase additional food at vastly inflated prices, but few can afford this luxury. Even the water supply in Tehran’s prisons is contaminated, forcing prisoners to buy bottles of water at the punitive cost of 30,000 rials, or $0.70c per bottle. Many prisoners have no source of income whatsoever and having been the main breadwinners for their household, have left their families destitute and without income or food. The mental stress caused by their plight is used as a further source of torture by the venally corrupt prison officials.

In the Greater Tehran Prison, solitary confinement as a punishment has been replaced with incarceration in large holding cells, designed for 20 prisoners, but now crammed with 60 to 70 people. There is a single toilet in the corner of each holding cell, obscured by a filthy curtain. The stench from the toilet constantly permeates the entire cell. There is no access to ventilation or direct sunlight and prisoners can be starved and held under these awful conditions for weeks, until their will is finally broken. Only then, after they have signed a commitment to repent their political views and have been forced to bow and grovel to the guards, are they returned to the public wards of the prison. There, at least they are allowed to go outside every morning into the sunlight from 7am to 8am, while a head count is undertaken.

Much of the information on the brutal conditions in Tehran’s medieval prisons has come from an audio file and letters smuggled out of the Greater Tehran Penitentiary by the fearless political prisoner Soheil Arabi, an Iranian blogger who was sentenced to death in 2013 for insulting the Prophet Mohammad in several Facebook postings. His sentence was commuted to a lengthy jail term and two years of mandatory study of Islamic theology. Arabi was awarded the Press Freedom Prize by Reporters Without Borders for his courageous attempts to draw attention on social media to the plight of Atena Daemi, the young female civil and children’s rights activist, who has faced repeated torture and beatings and is serving a fourteen-year sentence for distributing anti-death penalty leaflets. Arabi has himself been subjected to repeated torture and beatings by the authorities for exposing the Iranian regime’s deplorable prison conditions.  After he smuggled out his audio tape and letters denouncing the prison system to his family, his mother, Farangis Mazloum Soheil, was arrested and charged with “assembly and collusion with the intention of committing crime through contacting the People’s Mojahedin Organization (PMOI/MEK)” and for “disseminating propaganda against the state and in favour of dissident groups.” Despite her frailty and poor health, she was severely tortured under interrogation and sentenced to 18-months imprisonment. Meanwhile, on 21st October, her son, Soheil Arabi, has been transferred to solitary confinement in Ward 2A of the notorious Evin Prison, Tehran, where he has once again been subjected to severe torture.

Soheil Arabi’s bravery in exposing the inhumane prison conditions in Iran included a detailed description of the looting and rape that continues daily, with the full connivance of the prison guards. Arabi says that extortionist gangs and thieves, prey on newcomers in Tehran’s jails, robbing them of any possession and often raping them. He says that this behaviour is not only tolerated, but openly encouraged by the prison guards and wardens. Monthly inspections are particularly cruel and sadistic. Military personnel from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) – the regime’s Gestapo, assist prison officials in searching prisoners’ cells and belongings, breaking dishes and flasks and responding to even the slightest complaint from a prisoner with violent beatings. Prisoners have been ordered not to look directly at the face of any soldiers during these inspections, presumably to avoid identification. Those who break this rule by raising their head are beaten unconscious with batons. 

Injured or sick prisoners are routinely denied medical attention. Even prisoners who offer to pay for their own medical treatment are refused transport to a hospital. Inevitably, in a country that has seen over 132,000 Covid-19 deaths, the coronavirus has spread like wildfire through the prison system, with aid deliberately withheld. Amnesty International reported that 36 prisoners were killed and hundreds injured, when protests were staged earlier this year over Covid-19 fears. The authorities used live ammunition to shoot down the protesters. Conditions in Iran’s women’s prisons are equally dire. The infamous women’s ward in Tehran’s Evin Prison is divided into two halls, one for political prisoners and the other for the wives and children of male convicts. Clearly, none of these people should be in jail in the first place. In a cack-handed attempt to stem the spread of the coronavirus, new arrivals are held for 14 days in the second hall, before transfer to the political prisoner ward. Metal sheets have been nailed over windows to shut out natural light, in a bizarre attempt to reduce transmission of the disease. The lack of sunlight has, in fact, made matters worse, increasing the suffering of prisoners. Women in the jails are denied access to face masks and sanitizers unless they pay gigantic rip-off prices to the corrupt guards. Now, because of severe over-crowding, women sentenced for violent crimes or drug offences are being housed alongside political prisoners, leading to hostility and constant clashes.

The inhumane treatment of prisoners in Iran is an international scandal. The misogynistic regime now holds poll-position as the world’s leading executioner. Under the so-called ‘moderate’ presidency of Hassan Rouhani over 4,300 people have been hanged, including 109 women and many who were children at the time of their arrest. Under Rouhani’s instructions, the regime’s security forces also shot and killed more than 1,500 protesters during a nationwide uprising in November 2019. More than 12,000 protesters were arrested. Many have been tortured into making false confessions and several have been executed. Hundreds more are on death row. It is time the international community took a stand against this evil regime and held its leaders to account. Only the final overthrow of the tyrannical mullahs will see peace, justice and freedom restored to the Iranian people.