A retired Iranian British engineer detained in Iran since 2017 on spying charges that he denies has decided to speak up for the first time about alleged human rights abuses at the Tehran jail where he is imprisoned.
Anoosheh Ashoori is the latest of several individuals whose detentions in Iran under harsh conditions have pushed them into becoming human rights advocates from their prison cells.
Iran-born Ashoori was arrested in Tehran in August 2017 while visiting his mother. He traveled from London, where he, his wife, son and daughter have lived for decades. Iranian authorities later convicted him of spying for Israel and sentenced him to 10 years in the capital’s Evin prison.
The family of the 66-year-old dual national has rejected the spying charge as bogus. It also has urged the British government, which has diplomatic relations with Iran, to do more to secure Ashoori’s release. The British foreign office has issued statements urging Iran to reunite him with his family.
'Victims of tyranny'
In a July 3 statement read by Ashoori during a phone call from prison with his wife, Sherry, who recorded it on an iPad and sent it exclusively to VOA Persian, Ashoori said he is willing to cooperate with human rights organizations to raise awareness about what he called “victims of tyranny” at Evin.
“These victims are too scared to talk, as they fear that they or their loved ones will be harmed by the ruthless elements of the Islamic regime,” he said, referring to Iran’s rulers.
Ashoori has made a series of audio statements in recent months via a prison-monitored telephone with the help of his wife, who has recorded and made them public at his request. A weeklong audio diary shared with Emirati newspaper The National in April detailed what he described as a chaotic response by Evin authorities to the threat of coronavirus contagion in the prison.
In a June 10 recording shared with AFP, Ashoori appealed to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to get him and other British nationals out of Evin, where he said the threat of the coronavirus was “as strong as ever.”
Britain has said it is aware of about a dozen incidents of its citizens being arrested in Iran since 2015 and has warned that British-Iranian dual nationals face a “high risk” of arbitrary detention. Rights activists have accused Tehran of detaining Iranians with dual Western nationalities that it does not recognize in order to use them as bargaining chips for concessions from Western powers.
Suicide attempts, shock treatments
Ashoori’s July 3 statement went further than his previous recordings by detailing the kinds of rights abuses that he said he has seen and heard about at Evin. He said those abuses include two cases of prisoners being killed during harsh interrogations, one case of a prisoner dying of medical problems induced by poor prison conditions, and a dozen cases of prisoners being taken to mental hospitals for unknown injections and electric shock treatments.
Ashoori also said he had learned of six prisoners attempting suicide and two others who succeeded in killing themselves. He did not name any of the prisoners whose cases he cited.
Raha Bahreini, a London-based Iran researcher for rights group Amnesty International, told VOA Persian that there have been several suspicious deaths of detainees in Iran since 2017. She said there are signs that the deaths resulted from torture by Iranian authorities, but Iran’s refusal to allow independent investigations and autopsies have made it impossible to determine the causes of those deaths.
Bahreini said one such case involved Kavous Seyed-Emami, an Iranian Canadian environmentalist who Iran said committed suicide at Evin in February 2018, two weeks after his arrest for alleged espionage. Iranian authorities refused to allow an independent investigation of his death, leading his family to reject suicide as the cause.
Bahreini said Amnesty has not compiled a report on actual suicides and suicide attempts at Evin. But she cited the case of Iranian alternative medicine practitioner Mohammad Ali Taheri, who was released from detention in April 2019 after serving a term of more than seven years in several prisons including Evin for his peaceful activities.
“He was held in solitary confinement for more than six years, and during that period he attempted suicide multiple times,” Bahreini said.
Lengthy list of illnesses
In his July 3 statement, Ashoori recited a long list of illnesses that he said his fellow inmates had suffered because of poor living conditions at Evin: brain stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular problems, paralysis of the esophagus, trembling hands, early whitening and loss of hair, joint problems, loss of teeth, prostate complications and cancer, gallbladder and liver problems, ophthalmic problems, skin fungus, and mental problems including depression and anxiety.
“That is completely consistent with information that Amnesty has gathered over the years about prisoners who develop medical problems because of inhumane conditions they are held in,” Bahreini said.
Ashoori also called for human rights observers and independent medical teams to be allowed to inspect conditions at Evin and interview victims of the alleged abuses that he described.
“I think it is a very brave act that he is engaging in,” Bahreini said. “It shows the pain and sense of injustice of prisoners who have been jailed for politically motivated reasons is so enormous, that over time, it leads them to engage in human rights activism, even from inside prison.”
In one example of a prisoner who went through a similar evolution, Bahreini highlighted Iranian blogger Soheil Arabi, who has been detained since 2013 when authorities arrested him for allegedly posting Facebook comments deemed insulting to the Prophet Muhammad.
“Over the years, as Arabi has faced multiple abuses in prison, he has turned into a full-blown activist who stands up for other prisoners of conscience and who issues statements about them from inside prison,” Bahreini said.
Ashoori’s call for independent inspections of Evin prison also drew praise from Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, director of Oslo-based group Iran Human Rights. He told VOA Persian that organizations such as his have issued similar calls for years, but Iran has either refused to respond or denied those requests.
U.N. Special Rapporteurs on human rights last visited some Iranian prisons in the late 1980s to early 1990s, Amiry-Moghaddam said.
“Iranian authorities didn’t like the reports of those U.N. experts and didn’t let them in again,” he said. “However, if international pressure is strong enough, Iranian authorities can be forced to accept prison inspections. I hope Ashoori’s words will contribute to this.”
This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service. Ramin Haghjoo contributed.