An exiled Iranian Dervish activist accused Tehran last week of violating its own prison regulations by allowing seven Dervish women to suffer “appalling” conditions in jail. “The Dervish women are weak physically after having been beaten before and after their transfer to the prison,” said Alireza Roshan, whose community practices a form of Islam considered deviant by the clerical regime. “But prison officials are not allowing them to receive needed medical treatment.” These allegations remain consistent with systemic patterns of abuse by Iran’s Prisons Organization and its director, Asghar Jahangir. It’s long past time for Washington to sanction them for their history of repression.
In a March 2018 report, the office of the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Iran described Iran’s penitentiaries as “inhuman and degrading.” According to the report, prisoners have endured “the denial of medical care” as well as “inadequate accommodation; imprisonment in cramped cells; inadequate provision of food and water; unhygienic conditions; and restricted access to toilet facilities.” In Evin Prison, for example, one shower serves up to 200 people, while as many as 28 prisoners reside in a cramped 20-square-meter cell. At the same time, physical and psychological torture by prison officials, including rape, is common.
Jahangir has attributed some of the hardships in prison to financial constraints. “Our budget is not enough to run the prisons properly,” he said in a moment of candor in December 2017. “Prisons in the Islamic Republic have two times more inmates than their capacity. We are incapable of properly feeding our prisoners three times a day.” Yet as the experiences of countless detainees suggest, Tehran deliberately deprives inmates of basic needs – conduct that violates the Prisons Organization’s own regulations.
For example, in November 2017, prisoners in Rajaee Shahr Prison found cigarette butts, Band-Aids, and pieces of rocks in their food, prompting one of them, labor rights activist Reza Shahabi, to write a letter of complaint to Jahangir. Shahabi and several other inmates also waged hunger strikes to protest their detention. While Tehran released Shahabi in March 2018, Rajaee Shahr Prison remains unreformed.
Iran’s prison population also continues to grow at a staggering rate. According to Jahangir, between 1985 and 2016, the number of prisoners increased by 333 percent, while Iran’s total population increased only by 66 percent. Today, approximately a quarter of a million people reside in more than 200 jails that dot Iran. These numbers have surged during moments of crisis. Jahangir said that Tehran arrested 4,972 people during the first month of nationwide protests that began in late 2017.
Jahangir retains ties to other individuals and institutions Washington has already sanctioned for human rights abuses. Before his appointment in April 2014, Jahangir served as an advisor to Sadegh Amoli Larijani, the head of Iran’s judiciary, whom the Trump administration designated for presiding over the execution and torture of prisoners. Similarly, President Trump has sanctioned Rajaee Shahr Prison and its director; Evin Prison, Iran’s most notorious jail; and the Tehran Prisons Organization, a subsidiary of Iran’s Prisons Organization, and one of its previous directors.
The United States should now build upon these steps by sanctioning Jahangir and Iran’s Prisons Organization. In so doing, the United States can make clear not only that it will hold Iran’s major human rights violators accountable for their actions, but also that the entirety of Iran’s prison infrastructure requires systemic reform.
Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn.
Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and follow FDD’s Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance @FDD_CSIF and FDD's Iran Project on @FDD_Iran. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.