Hunger Strikes In Iran Over Jail Deaths

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Six more Iranian political prisoners joined inmates who initiated an "indefinite" hunger strike after the death of two political activists. The strike began in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran and has now spread to Rajaei Shahr prison in Karaj, west of Tehran.

Twelve prominent political inmates of Evin prison started their hunger strike on 12 June to protest the death of two prisoners, Haleh Sahabi and Reza Hoda Saber. They demanded authorities find those responsible for their deaths. The strikers are well-known figures from main opposition groups in Iran.

According to opposition website Kaleme, the six prisoners in Rajaei Shahr prison who have gone on hunger strike in solidarity with the 12 inmates in Evin prison, vowed "to continue with their protest until the 12 prisoners in Evin cease their hunger strike."

Haleh Sahabi, a political activist and daughter of Iranian prominent dissident Ezatollah Sahabi, died during her father’s funeral ceremony. Haleh was allowed out of prison to attend the funeral and died after a scuffle with one of the so-called plainclothes men who wanted to take the coffin of her father away from the crowd. According to eyewitnesses, she was punched down and bitten in a confrontation which provoked a cardiac arrest. Ezzatollah Sahabi was among the leaders of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and a member of the government which resigned in protest at the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran. He was also the leader of Nationalist-Religious Coalition from 2003 onward.

The following day Reza Hoda Saber, a journalist and a Nationalist-Religious political activist, who was arrested a year after 2009 disputed presidential election in Iran, went on a wet hunger strike with another National-Religious activist, Amir Khosrow Dalirsani. They announced that their act was to protest "the conditions that led to the death of Haleh Sahabi" and the government’s crackdown against protesters — and that they were not seeking "personal demands". They added, "our hunger strike is an independent decision and we are not seeking any trouble for our inmates. We don’t invite others to join us". They hope that this act will bring to an end the "tyranny which is going on against such undefended people".

The two prisoners continued their hunger strike, even though many other activists asked them to end it as their health conditions deteriorated rapidly.

In early hours of Friday 10 June, Saber complained of severe chest pains. He was taken to the Evin prison infirmary. Two hours later he was brought back to the ward while still in serious pain. Other cellmates were awoken by his cries.

According to Dalirsani, prisoners asked the ward authorities to take him to the infirmary again but the officer in chief rejected the demand and said the infirmary staff had reported he was in good condition. Finally Saber who could not even stand on his own feet, was taken to the infirmary on a stretcher. Later he was taken to Modarres hospital, where he died of cardiac complications.

Saber claimed staff had not only initially failed to treat him, but had beaten him and insulted him. He insisted that he was thrown out of the room by the infirmary staff, wrote Amir Khosrow Dalirsani in a detailed report on Saber’s eventual death, a copy of which was published by Kaleme.

Moreover, 64 prisoners testified in a letter two days after his death that Saber was shivering intensely in his cell and that he said in a loud voice, "I will sue them".

The letter continues, "Hoda Saber had been held in prison without any legal verdict or sentence, and was imprisoned in a completely unsystematic fashion due to the pressure and force exerted by certain intelligence bodies and with full knowledge of responsible organisations yet no one provided answers to why and with what legal justification he was held behind bars … We firmly state that the current [political]establishment is directly responsible for the death of martyr Saber."

In an interview with the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, political activist Reza Alijani talked about the death of his former cellmate Saber. "All the evidence shows that the rulers and security apparatus wanted him to die," Alijani told the campaign. "I see Hoda’s death as an invisible execution and a type of threat against others on hunger strike, that if they continue their strike, they will face death."

The 12 inmates on hunger strike made it clear that they were acting in memory of Saber and Sahabi. In a statement, they wrote, "in memory of the martyrs of the Green Movement from Neda to Haleh and from Sohrab to Saber, we express our condolences and sympathies to the families of the martyrs … and begin a hunger strike in protest". They said Iranians are seeking the "rights and freedoms elaborated in the constitution and mentioned in international treaties ratified by our country. They preach tolerance in dealing with everyone regardless of the different [political]tendencies they present, while also being committed to the law and national interests."

Now, 18 political prisoners are in the 10th day of a hunger strike. The families of Haleh Sahabi and Hoda Saber as well as many political activists, including former president Mohammad Khatami are urging them to end their hunger strike. "What is important is that this hunger strike immediately comes to an end as the only important thing is the health of our political prisoners," Khatami said in a statement. Khatami has also urged Iranian authorities to "hold talks with the protesters at least once in order to resolve the problems."

The deaths of Haleh Sahabi and Reza Hoda Saber as well as the hunger strikes by prominent political prisoners have put a spotlight on human rights concerns in Iran, especially about political prisoners.

Ardeshir Amir Arjomand, senior advisor to Mir Hossein Mousavi, the prominent opposition leader who is under house arrest, has written a letter to Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, asking him to immediately turn his attention to the condition of the political prisoners on hunger strike in Evin and Rajaei Shahr prisons. Families of the hunger strikers have also appealed to Shaheed, asking him to demand of officials the "necessary medical care for the political prisoners on hunger strike". A former foreign minister of the Maldives, Shaheed was recently named United Nations human rights investigator on Iran. The post was established by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) on 24 March.

Unsurprisingly, Iranian officials did not welcome the UNHCR’s appointment of Shaheed. In a recent television interview, Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, head of Iran’s judiciary, said Iran would work with the UN on human rights, but would not accept an investigator. Furthermore, MP Mohammad Karim Abedi announced last week that the human rights committee of the Iranian parliament has decided to take measures to prohibit the entry of the newly appointed UN Special Rapporteur on Iran.

Under these circumstances, it seems unlikely that Ahmed Shaheed’s feet will ever touch Iran’s soil. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has rejected investigations by world human rights bodies’ investigations and pushed aside their demands regarding religious, political, women and workers’ rights.

In addition, the case of Hoda Saber makes it clear that the Iranian government won’t pay attention to hunger strikes by prisoners.

Why then have the prisoners have begun an "indefinite" hunger strike? Why are they using the only weapon they have in prison which is their body? They undoubtedly know that they may meet their deaths — some of them have already been hospitalised and others are in dangerous health. As the columnist of Roozonline writes, "they are risking their lives for the unity among opposition groups and bodies."

The strikers are prominent figures from the main opposition groups in Iran and this is the first time such people are acting in unity. They are risking their lives to shake awake their society, their people and opposition groups — and all those Iranians who are seeking a change in the current situation. They may also hope to bring to an end the "tyranny which is going on against undefended people," as Hoda Saber announced before his death.

 

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