Many of us cannot go 5 hours without needing something to eat, whether it’s a healthy kale snack or some fast food you know you really shouldn’t touch. Yet political prisoners in one of Iran’s prisons, Gohardasht – some 15 miles northwest of the capital – have entered their 5th week of hunger strike. Even under so-called normal circumstances, Gohardasht’s security guards are more notorious than those at Evin, Iran’s most notorious prison, when it comes to cruelty in treating political prisoners and some former political prisoners consider Evin as a 5 star hotel in comparison to Ghoardasht.
Against this backdrop, on July 30th, inmates in Ward 4, Hall 12 of Gohardasht Prison were violently transferred to Hall 10, where conditions and treatment are even worse than the prisoners. Hall 10 had been newly renovated ahead of the raid; but this was not contractors installing new sinks or applying coats of paint; the renovations were solely intended to put more pressure on Iranian political prisoners. In their new home, the prisoners are subject to 24/7 video and audio surveillance – without exception. Windows have been covered over with metal canvas, thereby reducing airflow during summer in a facility already known for its inhuman and unhygienic conditions.
The indiscriminate raid was followed by confiscation or outright theft of virtually all of the inmates’ personal belongings, including prescription medications. Since then, prison authorities have denied the prisoners access to medical treatment and have even blocked the delivery of expensive medications purchased for them by families outside the prison. Iranian trade unionist Reza Shahabi’s wifes insistence on visiting him forced the prison’s warden to allow a short visit, which Reza was forced to stand up throughout. She later told a radio broadcaster in Stockholm that her husband, in the 5th week of his hunger strike, was very frail. She fears his life is at serious risk. The raid’s victims have vowed to continue with the protest until they are transferred back to their previous ward and have their belongings returned to them.
The initial hunger strike has gained momentum and fellow inmates are joining the protest. Two dozen prisoners are on hunger strike now. Most of the strikers are political prisoners, often supporting the country’s leading banned opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK).
Western governments have been largely focussed on the regime’s nuclear activities and finding ways to prevent it from gaining nuclear capability. However, this has led to a loss of focus on it’s internal affairs – human rights defenders have therefore lost a receptive ear to their whistle blowing. The regime has not change its behaviour, despite facing annual reports of various kinds published by the Western governments about its violations of human rights, women’s rights, religious rights or even UN resolutions condemning it. The ruling mullahs know full well that as long as the rest of the world is willing to give in to its re-strengthening, whilst missing it’s internal behaviour, it need not be worried too much.
A close look at Hassan Rouhani’s first term in office sees a concerning continuation of human rights abuses; most noticeable are the more than 3,000 executions and a severe crackdown on dissidents and right activists. Despite the portrayal of Rouhani in the West as a ‘moderate’ figure in the Iranian establishment, his record shows that perhaps human rights are not his top priority. Indeed, a recent Amnesty International (AI)’s report gives short shrift to the idea of “moderation” in Iran, referencing its “’vicious’ crackdown on human rights activists under Rouhani” and “long jail sentences after trials lasting only 45 minutes “ for ’Offences’ that included communicating with EU, UN and human rights organizations.”
A case in point was last month when EU Foreign Policy Chief, Federica Mogherini, paid a high profile visit to Iran. She was received as a celebrity by Iran’s parliament and posed for “embarrassing” selfies with its members, rather than investigating human rights abuses. Human rights organization such as AI – the most vocal on Iranian regime’s abuses – have constantly called on western governments to condition their visits on permission to independently meet with rights’ activists in the country. In a statement, the organisation commented that “The international community, and in particular the EU must not stay silent over the outrageous treatment of human rights defenders in Iran.”