WASHINGTON - Signs of deadly prison unrest in Iran have made it the latest country to see prisoners’ anxieties about exposure to coronavirus outbreaks in cramped jails erupt into violence in recent weeks.
In a Thursday statement, London-based rights group Amnesty International cited “credible” sources as saying that Iranian security forces have killed several dozen protesting inmates and wounded hundreds of others at three Iranian prisons since late March. It said the prisoners had joined protests against authorities’ refusal to grant them temporary releases to reduce their risk of contracting the virus inside crowded and unsanitary prison compounds.
Iran has not released data on coronavirus cases inside its prisons, but human rights activists began reporting outbreaks in several major prisons in early March.
In a March 29 announcement, Iran’s judiciary said that in order to curb the spread of the coronavirus, it was granting furloughs until mid-April to 100,000 prisoners, more than half of its publicly-declared prison population of 189,500 as of November 2019. But authorities have kept tens of thousands of inmates behind bars, among them Iranians charged with political crimes designated as “security” offenses.
Live ammunition, tear gas
Amnesty said its sources reported Iranian security forces using live ammunition and tear gas to suppress protests against ongoing detentions at two prisons in the southwestern city of Ahvaz on March 30 and 31.
The rights group said it believes “up to 15” inmates were killed at Sepidar prison and “around 20” others were killed at Sheiban prison. It also said Danial Zeinolabedini, a juvenile offender who had joined prison protests in the northwestern province of West Azerbaijan, died in “suspicious circumstances” on April 2 after security force beatings that “possibly” led to his death.
Amnesty said its sources for the reports of prison killings by Iranian security forces included prisoners’ families, independent journalists and human rights activists.
In a VOA Persian interview on Friday, Philippe Nassif, Amnesty International USA’s Middle East and North Africa advocacy director, said Iran is not the only country in the region to have witnessed such violent coronavirus-related disturbances inside its prisons in the past month.
“We know that the virus has entered Syrian prisons and authorities have reacted violently to some of the protests that have occurred in these facilities,” Nassif said. He singled out Syria’s notorious Sednaya prison north of Damascus as of greatest concern, saying Amnesty suspects it has a coronavirus outbreak started by infected residents of the nearby town.
“We don't have any more information about prison violence in Syria, because that's an even more difficult place from which to get timely information,” Nassif said.
Egypt releases some dissidents
The rights activist said Amnesty also has seen evidence of recent protests inside Egyptian prisons, in addition to protests outside of jails where prisoners’ family members have demanded that their relatives be released rather than remain exposed to the virus in detention.
Egypt released more than a dozen dissidents from prison last month. But neither Cairo nor Damascus have announced any significant releases of the tens of thousands of inmates in their prison populations to mitigate the risk of coronavirus spread.
In a March 26 article, The Washington Post reported other incidents of prison violence linked to the coronavirus in Europe and Latin America.
The report said prison riots in Italy had left 13 inmates dead and 59 guards injured since the start of the month. It said riots also killed at least 23 people in Colombian jails and plagued prisons in Peru and Chile, while as many as 1,000 inmates escaped detention in Brazil and five inmates were fatally shot trying to do the same in Venezuela.
This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service.