Before the parliamentary election, Raisi, head of Iran’s judiciary, accompanied by several judges paid a visit to Shar-e-Rey women’s prison. Raisi was a member of the “four-person death committee” during the mass execution of political prisoners in Iran in the summer of 1988. The visit, which was just a week before the parliamentary elections, was intended to be a propaganda act boosting the morale of those still loyal to the regime.
About 6 months ago, the same prisoners who were visited by Raisi on 14 February had written a letter to the regime’s authority in charge of all the prisons in Iran.
The letter states: “You recall your brief and superficial visit to the prison. You were accompanied by delegation and photographers. Your visit lasted about 10 minutes. You should know that the prisoners had to go through much pressure and suffering so everything would look OK and normal upon your visit. The clotheslines were removed and many prisoners who washed others’ clothing for a meager income were devastated. We had to wash and clean the entire prison and decorate the corridor with heavy flowerpots. We tried to have a chance to speak to you and your delegation and inform you of the problems we were facing in the prison but were unsuccessful and our attempts proved to be in vain.”
The Shar-e-Rey women’s prison was officially reopened in late 2011. Formerly a poultry farm that later became a drug addiction camp, following the decision of the judicial authorities to reunite all the female prisoners in Tehran and Alborz provinces, the premises were quickly rebuilt. The newly built prison lacked the standards of any regular prison and soon was filled by female inmates from various other prisons who were transferred there in groups.
This is the experience of a former Shar-e-Ray prisoner: “This prison is full of spiders, mice and snakes, beetles and cockroaches. I do not understand their logic for building a prison in such a remote, filthy and dangerous location, with such low standards. Our families are in fear when they come to visit us. We live in this prison with constant fear. We are deprived of warm water and must wash with cold water. In winter, the situation gets even worse. The lack of heat and warm water in winter makes our living conditions unbearable.”
The reality of the horrible situation of the largest women’s prison in Iran goes beyond these deprivations and is hard to explain. In a recent letter, a women’s rights activist who has imprisoned in Shar-e-Ray prison nicknames the prison as “Hell”. In addition to physical illnesses such as kidney stones and lung infections, mental illness, depression, and self-harm are common among the inmates of Shar-e-Ray prison.
Civil activist Athena Daemi also describes the situation in Shar-e-Ray prison in a letter in which she refers to her observations during her three-and-a-half-month stay. She writes: “Shar-e-Ray prison is a forced labor camp and drug addiction camp. The prisoners often do not even have one healthy tooth and have severe abdominal and limb swelling. Services such as dentistry must be paid for by the prisoners and other medical services are either unavailable or rarely available. Such services as are available are often accompanied by the humiliation of the prisoners and mostly limited to sleeping pills and methadone. The whole prison is filled with sewage odor, a major cause of respiratory diseases. Because of the unpleasant and harmful smell, everyone wakes up in the morning with severe coughing. Everyone feels suffocated.”
The prison has become a breeding ground for various infectious skin diseases, resistant TB and even AIDS.
Raisi’s visit came amid reports by Iran’s health minister of the inhumane conditions of all the prisons. He refers to the inmates as “removable time bombs.” According to the regime’s health minister, “an area of about 5 cubic meters houses 14 inmates and 3 level beds.”. The regime is aware of the abundant cases of “skin diseases, resistant TB and AIDS” and is doing nothing to solve this problem. Most of the prisoners are not covered by an insurance plan and this makes their situation even more critical and dire.
The condition of the prison has not changed at all in any respect. So, it is very clear that Raisi’s visit was neither intended to investigate the situation of the prison nor to improve the welfare of the prisoners. His visit was just a photo op, an opportunity to show that the regime cares. The regime needs such gestures, hoping to portray itself as one who listens to its people and cares about them. The people of Iran have brought their despair of the regime and their desire for a regime change to the streets of all cities. They are still infuriated over the killing of more than 1500 protesters in November 2019 by the regime’s guards. It was clear they were intending to boycott the sham parliamentary election on February 21.
Khamenei, in particular, understands his regime has no legitimacy, and that is why he deployed Raisi to Shar-e-ray prison to boost the morale of those still loyal to him and his regime. Furthermore, in his speech before the election, Khamenei said that participating in the election “is a religious duty, a public jihad and an act that strengthens the country”.
In the end, the people voted with their feet and the extremely low turnout on election day showed the reality of the situation.