An Iranian dissident has contracted the coronavirus at a prison in northern Iran, according to a knowledgeable source, highlighting what U.S. and U.N. officials say is a worsening pandemic threat facing Iran’s prisoners of conscience.
In a message sent Tuesday to VOA Persian, an Iran-based source close to the family of dissident Farhad Meysami said Meysami tested positive for the virus at Rajaei Shahr prison in the city of Karaj and was transferred that morning from his ward to a so-called prison “safe room” for isolation. The source had no further details on the conditions of Meysami’s detention.
The 50-year-old medical doctor and women’s rights activist has been imprisoned by Iran since his July 31, 2018, arrest. Security agents detained him at his Tehran home where they found him in possession of pins with the slogan “I am against compulsory hijab.”
Meysami had been peacefully supporting a 2018 campaign by Iranian women who removed their hijabs in public to protest Islamist regulations requiring the headscarves. He was sentenced in January 2019 to five years in prison on charges of “spreading propaganda against the system” and “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security,” a sentence that was upheld on appeal in August that year.
Authorities initially incarcerated Meysami at Tehran’s Evin prison before moving him to Rajaei Shahr last November.
A former Iranian political prisoner first reported Meysami’s coronavirus infection in a series of Monday tweets.
Zia Nabavi, who is based in Iran, tweeted that Meysami informed him of the diagnosis in a phone call from prison that day. Nabavi said Meysami reported feeling fine after being unwell last week.
The former political prisoner followed up with a Tuesday tweet in which he also said Meysami had been transferred to a prison safe room that morning. Nabavi described the safe room as an individual cell without medical and other facilities available to inmates in the public wards.
Meysami’s lawyer Mohammad Moghimi also tweeted about his client’s coronavirus diagnosis on Monday.
“My client should be on medical leave,” Moghimi wrote. “I emphasize again: political prisoners must be released unconditionally, and the health of ordinary prisoners must be guaranteed. Otherwise, they must be released temporarily or conditionally.”
Meysami’s infection got a mention in Iranian state media as well. Ensaf News published a Monday report quoting a friend of the dissident, medical book publisher Farhad Teimourzadeh, as saying he heard about the diagnosis from the dissident’s mother, Sedigheh Pishnamaz.
The health risks facing prisoners of conscience in Iran have prompted international concern as the Islamist-ruled nation struggles to contain the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East.
In a Tuesday tweet, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus called for Iranian authorities “to release all political prisoners from their overcrowded and unsanitary prisons immediately.”
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet also issued a statement Tuesday saying poor conditions inside Iranian prisons have “led to the spread of the virus among detainees, reportedly resulting in a number of deaths.”
“I call for [Iran’s] unconditional release of human rights defenders, lawyers, political prisoners, peaceful protesters and all other individuals deprived of their liberty for expressing their views or otherwise exercising their rights,” Bachelet said. “It is particularly important to rectify such injustices at a time when COVID-19 is coursing through Iran’s prisons.”