At least five Iranians arrested during the ongoing protests have reportedly died in the regime’s notorious prisons. The fate of the activists – Sina Ghanbari, Mohsen Adeli, Vahid Heydari, and two others who remain unidentified – reflects the Islamic Republic’s determination not only to suppress dissent, but also to intimidate other citizens from challenging its rule.
Tehran said the five Iranians committed suicide in prison, a claim disputed by their families and activists, according to Amnesty International. Fresh memories of the regime’s prior treatment of prisoners at the Kahrizak detention center have fueled suspicion of Iran’s account: In 2009, dozens of peaceful protesters sent to the facility experienced torture, leading to at least five deaths.
“I’m warning the president along with judiciary and intelligence officials of a second Kahrizak,” tweeted Iranian lawmaker Mahmud Sadeghi on Monday. Amnesty International called for an “independent, impartial, and transparent investigation” of the latest deaths, noting the “shroud of secrecy and lack of transparency over what happened to these detainees” and the “nightmarish conditions” in Iran’s prisons.
Regardless of the cause, Iranian prison authorities retain responsibility for the protesters’ deaths, said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran. “For some people, it’s unbearable and they reach a point they can’t endure,” he noted, referring to the physical and psychological pressure inmates routinely confront.
In the case of Heydari, Iranians “who saw the body noticed a fracture on the left side of his skull and a bump on his head that could be caused by a baton’s blow to his head,” said Mohammad Najafi, a lawyer. Heydari's uncle also rejected Tehran’s claim that his nephew was a drug dealer. “Vahid was a vendor at Arak’s bazar, he was neither a junkie nor a drug dealer,” the uncle said. “It wasn’t about drug dealing, the authorities are lying. Vahid was arrested because he was protesting over the high cost of living.”
These developments come amid a larger crackdown on Iranian protesters. According to Sadeghi, the regime has detained some 3,700 people. In total, at least 22 people have died, according to press reports. Last week, a group of UN human rights experts said the “names and whereabouts of all persons detained in connection with these protests ought to be made public and they should be allowed immediate access to their families and legal counsel.”
Further deaths, however, remain a distinct possibility. Hamid Shahriari, the deputy head of Iran’s judiciary, said the “rioters and riot leaders” will receive “the heaviest sentence,” an apparent reference to the death penalty. The statement prompted Iran Human Rights, an Oslo-based group, to call on the European Union to warn Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, of impending executions during his forthcoming visit to Brussels.
On Wednesday, the Trump administration issued such a declaration. “The United States calls for the immediate release of all political prisoners in Iran, including the victims of the most recent crackdown,” said White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders in a statement. The EU and America’s other allies and partners should follow Washington’s example.
Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn.
Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.