As coronavirus spreads in Iranian prisons, Ahwazi activists appeal to save political prisoner’s life

Ahwazi rights groups in Iran are calling on the international community to help save the life of prominent Ahwazi political prisoner Rahman Asakereh, with the latest reports confirming that he is close to death after contracting an illness believed to be coronavirus in prison.

Speaking with family members three days ago, Asakereh, who has been detained in the Quchan Prison in Razavi Khorasan province since 2011 for his human rights activism and support for the Ahwazi people, complained of symptoms similar to those of coronavirus, including coughing, feverishness and severe immobility. His family, who have not heard from him since, are desperately worried, with one inmate in the same dormitory cell as Asakereh dying of the coronavirus a few days before they spoke with him and another there reportedly in a critical condition with the highly infectious disease.

Asakereh, a widely respected thinker, academic and founder of a higher education institute, had appealed to the prison administration to place him in quarantine prior to falling ill, but received no response.

Asakereh, a chemistry teacher and polymath inspired a generation of young Ahwazi activists in the marginalised and poverty-stricken Ahwaz region with his principled stance and dedication to promoting education as a tool of liberation, establishing the Institute of Dialogue in the city of Khalafiyeh with two fellow academics, Hadi Rashedi, another chemistry teacher, and Hashem Shabani, an Arabic teacher.  All three were arrested in February 2011 on charges of sedition for their educational work and activism, with the regime viewing them, like other dissidents, as a threat.

At their typically farcical kangaroo trial held under Judge Mohammed Baqer al-Mousavi at the ‘revolutionary court’ in the city of Ahwaz, Asakereh, Shabani and Rashedi faced a range of the usual charges used against dissidents, namely ‘enmity to God’, ‘spreading mischief on earth’, working against Iranian national security, and spreading anti-regime propaganda. As always, there was no evidence beyond the regime’s claims, he was allowed no defence, and the verdict was largely pre-decided, with the trial itself being a formality for show.  Although all three denied the charges against them, Shabani and Rashedi were both sentenced to death, subsequently being executed in 2013.

While the Attorney-General argued that Asakereh should be detained for the rest of his life for his advocacy work, with the regime viewing any support for Ahwazi human rights as dangerous insurgency, he was ultimately sentenced to 20 years imprisonment.

The regime didn’t consider sentencing him to decades of detention to be sufficient punishment, transferring him as it has with many other political prisoners to a prison far away in order to separate him from other Ahawzis and to make it difficult for his family to visit him; in Asakereh’s case this meant sending him to the aforementioned Quchan Prison 2,000 miles away in July 2012.

Despite this terrible injustice and the privations inflicted on him in custody, including horrific torture, Asakereh refused to let the regime break his spirit, using his time in prison to read voraciously and to share his knowledge as much as possible.  The regime did everything in its power to deny him even this small pleasure, denying him the academic works he wished to read and withholding writing materials, as well as isolating him from other inmates; the regime, which has no problem with forcing political prisoners to share cells with killers, thieves and rapists, will not tolerate any sort of efforts to educate detainees.

Since his imprisonment, Asakereh has been afflicted with several illnesses due to torture, abuse, medical negligence and the atrocious conditions and overcrowding that are the norm in the regime’s infamous prison network.  Amongst other conditions, Asakereh suffers from gastrointestinal problems, high cholesterol and high blood pressure levels and persistent severe bladder infections. He has consistently been denied any medical help throughout his incarceration, with the prison turning down multiple requests for a transfer to the prison hospital despite his obvious medical incapacity.

Asakereh’s family have also been adversely affected by his imprisonment, with his wife forced to return to live with her family after losing their home due to his incarceration. One of his sons died in a suspicious car accident a few months after  Asakereh was imprisoned, with the prison authorities refusing to allow him to attend the funeral; this cruelty was repeated again in 2019 when Asakereh’s father died of a heart attack, with the prison again denying him furlough to attend his father’s funeral. Another of Asakereh’s sons fell into a crushing depression due to his father’s imprisonment and turned to drugs, whilst his young daughter who had a promising academic future had to leave school at age 15 and get married to escape poverty.

Speaking about the case, Irina Tsukerman,  a human rights activist based in New York said, “The Tehran regime’s brutality and inhumanity manifest themselves not only through active measures such as baseless arrests of high school teachers for peaceful educational and cultural activities but in deliberately keeping them in such conditions that they die from preventable causes and illnesses. Not only has Iran been extremely negligent in trying to cover up coronavirus, refusing to shut down shrines where the illness is spreading, and disseminating disinformation about treatment but they have facilitated the spread of the virus among the most vulnerable Ahwazi prisoners in violation of their own laws on treatment of prisoners and in violation of all international norms concerning treatment of prisoners.”

“As a result, people like this high school teacher suffer double: as victims of arbitrary detentions, convicted on trumped-up charges, and tortured in prisons and as victims of medical neglect aimed at weakening Ahwazi Arab sense of identity.”

“This sort of medical negligence is not possible without the abuse of the medical system and gross violation of the hypocritical oath by doctors.”

Due to the intense media blackout imposed by the Iranian regime in Ahwaz, with prisoners’ families subjected to threats of violence and imprisonment for speaking out about the abuses they and their loved ones are subjected to, there is little or no coverage of the regime’s crimes in either the regime-controlled Farsi-language media or in international media.  Many Ahwazi activists have expressed frustration at the lack of solidarity from Persian-Iranian human rights activists over the brutal abuses which Ahwazi people and other minorities are subjected to in addition to the regime’s usual oppression.

 

Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. You can follow him on his twitter account: https://twitter.com/samireza42

Mostafa Hetteh is a writer and journalist: https://twitter.com/mostafahetteh

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