By Peter Tase
On behalf Eurasia Review, I had the privilege to interview Mahmoud,* a political prisoner in Iran’s infamous Vakilabad Prison.
Vakilabad Prison is located in the city of Mashhad in eastern Iran. This prison has reportedly been the site of hundreds of secret executions carried out by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Not only have the executions taken place secretly, but neither the prisoners nor their families were informed prior to their execution. Mr. Ahmed Shaheed, the former UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran, has documented more than 300 secret executions in Vakilabad during the past years.
Vakilabad Prison is massively overcrowded, which puts the prisoners under severe pressure, with many of them having to sleep on the floor due to poor conditions.
The quality of prison food is abysmal and medical services are denied to political prisoners. Each prisoner is only allowed to see a doctor every three months, and the doctor usually prescribes only three types of medicine, regardless of the individual’s problem.
The Coronavirus is now a disaster in this crowded location. The prisoners are denied hospital treatment; they receive no medication after exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.
The following is a summary of my interview with Mahmoud: the interview was conducted with the contribution of ER correspondents in Iran.
Question 1: What is the reason for the prevalence of Coronavirus in the prisons?
R: Lack of hygiene in prison due to lack of sanitation facilities. No matter how much I follow hygienic guidelines, while this place is full of bedbugs and lice, then Coronavirus will thrive.
Prison officials are responsible for the Coronavirus outbreak because they travel to the outside.
The contaminated food they serve us is also the cause of the Coronavirus outbreak, because no hygiene is observed in cooking. The prison store brings the lowest quality of goods, fruit and vegetables. We cannot disinfect the fruit and vegetables because we do not have disinfectant. The disinfectant is reduced to a detergent and salt. The store does not provide any other items.
They give a ration that is also insignificant. In terms of social distancing, since the prison is so overcrowded, we are catastrophically close and in fact stuck together. We do not have a room, we live in the prison yard, we sleep in the corridor, we sleep so close that our noses touch each other and we are face to face. I am not exaggerating at all.
Question 2: How do the Iranian authorities deal with Coronavirus cases among prisoners, especially political prisoners?
R: It does not matter to anyone whether a prisoner dies or not.
If someone has a fever, they identify him as infected with Coronavirus and take him to Ward 15, which is a quarantine ward. There are no treatments. If he does not die, he will be returned to his ward. If his conditions deteriorate and they have to take him to a hospital outside the prison, they will bring a car and the prisoner must walk on his own to reach the car.
We do not know whether any of the patients who were taken to hospital died or survived. Many prisoners hide their condition and do not mention they are sick or have symptoms for fear of being sent to the quarantine ward and dying there. We have also had cases in prison where a prisoner has died, but the cause was announced to be a heart condition.
Alcohol disinfectant is now banned in the prison. Although it is a useful substance and we could use it for disinfecting, we are not allowed to buy alcohol for disinfecting even with our own money. That is, if anyone buys smuggled alcohol with their own money, now, they will be accused of committing a crime in prison. That is, just for buying alcohol we must expect to be flogged, put in solitary confinement, insulted, and humiliated!
We were left in captivity and several of us also were separated from each other to die or survive. They do not care which.
Question 3: How can international intervention play a role in future protests of prisoners’ families against the Iranian regime? What have international interventions done so far? Did they come to inspect the prisons? Visit prisons?
R: In my opinion, international pressure has not yet yielded anything! One thousand five hundred demonstrators were killed in November. What did international intervention do? I wrote so many letters and complained, what did they do? Were they able to resolve any issue?
I am now in a condition that when at night and I sleep, I do not have control over my life! If Coronavirus does not kill me, the fights inside the prison will kill me, perhaps by a knife. Anyone can easily cut off my head or into a vein at night.
Question 4: What actions have the Iranian regime taken in response to the Coronavirus outbreak?
R: The first thing they did was to give false statistics to the public. That was the only thing they did with respect to the Coronavirus outbreak. Even in underdeveloped countries, measures were taken to control the spread of Coronavirus, but not in Iran.
* The name of the individual being interviewed is a pseudonym, to defend his identity further against violent repercussions to his personal integrity.