The wife of a jailed Iranian teachers union leader says her husband and five other dissidents have tested positive for the coronavirus in a Tehran prison that has transferred them to rooms where they cannot maintain social distance.
In a Monday interview with VOA Persian from her home in Tehran, the wife of Esmail Abdi said he told her about the predicament facing him and the other inmates in a phone call from Evin prison the day before.
Monir Abdi cited her husband as saying that he and the other five dissidents were among a total of 12 prisoners who tested positive for the coronavirus in Evin’s Ward 8 after undergoing a first round of tests last week. She said he told her that prison authorities shared the results with him and the other prisoners on Sunday, about two weeks after some of them began experiencing coronavirus symptoms including loss of the senses of taste and smell.
Abdi said her husband also informed her that he and the other 11 prisoners were transferred to Evin’s health center on Sunday and split into two groups of six, with each group being housed in separate rooms where social distancing was not possible. She said he told her that the health center gave them follow-up coronavirus tests and promised definitive results within 48 hours.
Esmail Abdi is a high school teacher and former leader of the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association, who has been serving a six-year prison term since November 2016 for alleged national security offenses related to his peaceful advocacy of teachers’ rights.
"Esmail has been suffering from a respiratory illness since his last hunger strike two years ago, and the virus has worsened his breathing difficulties,” Monir Abdi said. “Prison authorities have increased his dosage of respiratory medication, prescribed asthma sprays and blood pressure medication, but we are worried that his lungs will be seriously damaged,” she added.
Abdi’s latest prison leave earlier this year coincided with Iran temporarily releasing tens of thousands of prisoners to reduce the risk of coronavirus contagion in its overcrowded and unsanitary jails. His furlough ended after just over a month, disappointing his wife who told VOA she had tried to get him out of Evin again.
“We went to the Evin court several times and asked it to grant leave, follow health protocols in the prison and reduce the number of prisoners in each room, but nothing was done,” Monir Abdi said.
She said Evin prisoners seeking to protect themselves from the virus have been left to fend for themselves.
“When the coronavirus began spreading in Iranian prisons, inmates were given only two face masks and a one-time-use disinfectant,” Abdi said. “After that, no such sanitary materials were provided, and the prisoners were forced to buy hygiene items at their own expense and at a high price from the prison store.”
Abdi said her husband identified the five other dissidents who tested positive for the virus as Iranian journalist Majid Azarpey, labor union leader Jafar Azimzadeh, attorney and human right defender Amirsalar Davoudi, a man named Mohsen Ghanbari whose background was unclear, and Christian convert Mohammad Ali Mosibzadeh.
Azimzadeh is a leading member of the Free Union of Iranian Workers (FUIW), a group that formed in 2006 without government approval and advocates for better wages for workers.
An FUIW statement issued Sunday on the group’s Telegram channel confirmed that Azimzadeh, Esmail Abdi, Majid Azarpey, Amirsalar Davoudi were among the 12 prisoners at Evin’s Ward 8 who tested positive for the virus.
Monir Abdi also shared news of the positive coronavirus tests of her husband and the other prisoners with Iranian state-approved news site Emtedad, which published its own interview with her on its Telegram channel on Sunday.
The Emtedad report later was republished by several other Iranian state-approved new sites.
Washington-based group Abdorrahman Boroumand Center, which advocates for human rights in Iran, posted a video to Twitter on Tuesday, featuring prominent Iranian diaspora figures calling on Iran’s Islamist rulers to free political prisoners whose lives have been endangered by the spread of the coronavirus in Iranian jails. Among those declaring “set them free” in the video is Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi.
In April, UN human rights experts called on Tehran to release prisoners of conscience and dual and foreign nationals still being held in Iranian jails despite what the experts called “serious risk of COVID-19 infection”. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a similar appeal the month before, calling on Iran to release all people whom he said were “wrongfully detained” in the country, including several Americans, and citing what he said was an “enormous health risk” to such individuals from coronavirus outbreaks in Iranian prisons.