PARIS: Iranian authorities are not taking the measures needed to limit the spread of coronavirus in its overcrowded prisons, including institutions where foreigners such as Australian Kylie Moore-Gilbert are held, a rights group charged on Wednesday.
Disinfection of prison facilities is lacking, basic hygiene products including soap are not readily available, the Washington-based Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran (ABC) said in a report.
It also warned that prisoners who were released at the start of the epidemic to limit close contacts are now being returned to serve out their sentences.
Iran has insisted that its actions to limit the spread of coronavirus among its prisoners have been exemplary despite being one of the hardest-hit countries in the region.
But the report, based on interviews with released prisoners and sources inside Iran, said the original directives have now largely been abandoned.
“Hygienic conditions in Iranian prisons, rather than improving, have significantly deteriorated” since April, said the NGO, named after an Iranian lawyer murdered in Paris in the early 1990s.
“Disinfections by prison officials have stopped across several investigated prisons, apparently due to a lack of budget,” it said.
Quarantine procedures were “self-defeating” with newcomers and existing prisoners mingling in common bathing, exercise and transport facilities.
While Iran released tens of thousands of prisoners to limit overcrowding at the beginning of the pandemic, this “initial effort… seems to have been abandoned by late spring, when prisoners were called back from furlough.”
More than 60,000 detainees were still on furlough in early August, according to Iran’s judiciary spokesman.
Roya Boroumand, executive director and co-founder of the Center, told AFP it was impossible to quantify the spread of Covid-19 in Iranian jails but the information obtained was troubling.
“If there is not a problem then why don’t we know (the figures)? We suspect that that’s really bad,” she said.
She added that even at the height of the pandemic Iran was showing no mercy to detainees, be they political prisoners, drug users or members of the proscribed Bahai faith.
“They keep arresting people. The continued arrests are the problem,” Boroumand said.
At the Zanjan prison in northern Iran, which holds the rights activist Narges Mohammadi, a former associate of Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, failure to isolate an infected prisoner has exposed the entire women’s ward to coronavirus, the report said.
Mohammadi, who has pre-existing health conditions, herself believes she contracted the virus after a batch of new prisoners arrived and complained to the prison authorities.
Conditions in Qarchak women’s jail, where Moore-Gilbert was transferred earlier this year to serve a 10-year sentence on espionage charges she rejects, are also dire, with a “sewer system that overflows into the wards’ courtyards,” the report said.
Since the pandemic began, Qarchak prison officials have distributed disinfectants to prisoners once, and have never distributed additional cleaning or personal hygiene products.
Masks made inside the prison in unsanitary conditions are distributed free of charge. By mid-July, 30 people were being held in a room at the wing for critically ill prisoners.
Meanwhile, at Tehran’s Evin prison, 12 of 17 incarcerated people tested in Ward 8, which houses political prisoners, were positive for coronavirus in August, it said.
A source with knowledge of Tabriz Prison in northern Tehran described the hygiene situation as “catastrophic,” while quarantine wards have been filled at Vakilabad prison in Mashhad.
“If left unchecked, Covid-19 will continue to infect more prisoners and staff, with tragic consequences,” the report said.