WASHINGTON - A jailed Iranian blogger is intensifying his campaign to raise international awareness about worsening conditions at the notorious prison where he is detained, saying in a new audio recording that coronavirus-infected inmates are not being sent to hospitals until near death.
In the audio message recorded this month and sent to VOA Persian by a source, citizen journalist Soheil Arabi spoke from inside Greater Tehran Penitentiary, where he has been serving a sentence for posting online comments deemed insulting to the Prophet Muhammad.
Arabi previously said he had staged multiple hunger strikes this year, despite declining health, to demand a temporary release from the coronavirus-infested prison and better living conditions for all inmates. In a letter that he shared with rights activists who posted it online in May, Arabi said he would end the hunger strikes at the urging of his family and friends and focus instead on fighting what he called “oppression, corruption and injustice” at the prison.
In June, the U.S. State Department labeled the jail as an entity “responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.”
“The conditions at Greater Tehran Penitentiary are very bad because there is poor hygiene, many prisoners have skin-related illnesses, and the spread of viruses and bacteria in different wards is threatening the lives of more than 20,000 people,” Arabi said in the audio message.
A July 7 report by Iranian state-approved news site Etemad put the prison population at 17,000, above its official capacity of 15,000 inmates.
“One ward is used to quarantine inmates who test positive for the coronavirus, but they are not sent to outside hospitals until they are a step away from death,” Arabi said.
The blogger said only a small number of hospitals have been accepting inmates from the prison, in part because prison authorities have failed to repay debts to those clinics.
Arabi also said prison food is inedible and drinking water is contaminated, forcing inmates to pay for their own food, water and sanitary items.
VOA is unable to independently confirm Arabi’s account of conditions at Greater Tehran Penitentiary. VOA Persian requested a comment from Iran’s U.N. mission in New York on the situation at the prison via email and phone messages Friday morning local time, but received no response.
Arabi’s description of prison conditions is consistent with a September 2 report by Washington-based rights group Abdorrahman Boroumand Center (ABC) about recent conditions at overcrowded and unsanitary Iranian jails struggling to deal with coronavirus outbreaks.
In the report, ABC cited an informed source as saying authorities at Greater Tehran Penitentiary transported prisoners only in the “direst and most rapidly deteriorating condition” to outside hospitals.
ABC also cited informed sources as saying free personal hygiene products were not provided in sufficient amounts to protect the prison’s inmates from the accelerating spread of the coronavirus. It cited the same sources as saying severe overcrowding has made social distancing for inmates impossible, and water shortages have left hundreds without drinking water and hot water for bathing.
Even Etemad’s July 7 article about Greater Tehran Penitentiary acknowledged what it called “disturbing” conditions at the prison, based on interviews it said it had done with several inmates convicted of financial crimes. It said the jail’s capacity of cells, beds and bathrooms was “not enough for just one-fifth" of its current inmate population.
Prison authorities allowed Arabi to have surgery at an outside medical facility in May to treat a colonic disease related to his hunger strikes, according to information previously shared with VOA Persian by his mother, Farangis Mazloum. However, authorities have rejected Arabi’s requests for a temporary release, in line with a policy of denying furloughs to prisoners serving more than five-year sentences for peaceful activities designated as national security offenses.
Iran said it allowed tens of thousands of other prisoners to be temporarily released from its prisons in March in part to mitigate coronavirus outbreaks in its jails.
In his audio recording, Arabi criticized Iran for granting long-term furloughs to convicts with governmental ties while keeping those convicted of political or ideological offenses in jail.
He said government-affiliated prisoners also have been able to bribe guards to grant them unlimited phone use and accommodation in cells with only two or three other inmates, as opposed to other cells in which more than 40 prisoners have to sleep side by side. Guards typically limit the number and duration of phone calls that inmates can make to family and friends.
Arabi has been in detention since November 2013. Initially sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2014, his punishment was commuted the following year to 7½ years in prison, two years of religious studies to prove his repentance and a two-year ban on traveling abroad.