Prisoners in Iran go on hunger strike over Covid-19 death of inmate

Free speech campaigner Baktash Abtin died this month after contracting the coronavirus at Evin jail in Tehran

Baktash Abtin before he was put into a coma after contracting Covid-19. Photo: @RSF_inter via Twitter
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At least 10 inmates in three Iranian prisons have gone on hunger strike in protest at the death of free speech campaigner Baktash Abtin who contracted Covid-19 inside Tehran’s Evin jail.

Seven political prisoners at Evin went on strike on January 16 and were joined by three others the following day at a women's prison and a second jail in the capital, according to the US-based Centre for Human Rights in Iran.

Campaigners say Abtin died earlier this month because of the failure of the Iranian authorities to look after him in prison. They say the Iranian poet and filmmaker died while in an induced coma in hospital after his treatment was delayed at Evin, where he was serving a six-year sentence on trumped-up national security charges.

Abtin, 48, was a leading light at the Iranian Writers’ Association, which continues to campaign against censorship despite being banned by the authorities. Three colleagues from the association remain in prison.

The protest over his death is the latest in a series of hunger strikes held to highlight Iranian prison policy. Two other inmates, British-Iranian Anoosheh Ashoori and Austrian-Iranian prisoner Kamran Ghaderi, went on strike this week over the continued use of dual-national prisoners as bargaining chips by Tehran in their negotiations with western governments.

Details of the latest hunger strike emerged as two organisations from the US and Canada filed a complaint with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention over the treatment of writers connected to the IWA.

Campaigners said that Iranian officials involved in their imprisonment should have sanctions imposed against them. The EU and US have already imposed sanctions on one judge involved in the IWA cases.

The petition, from the Canada-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and PEN America, wants the UN to rule that the detention of IWA leaders is against international law, paving the way for their immediate release and payment of compensation.

“This was an egregious violation of their human rights. The Iranian regime’s efforts to silence Baktash Abtin and his colleagues, coupled with medical neglect and abuse in prison, resulted in Abtin’s unjust and premature death just weeks ago,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar of PEN America.

“We cannot overstate the urgent need to unconditionally release his colleagues from their arbitrary imprisonment and for the international community to stand firm in supporting Iranian writers’ rights to free expression.”

The IWA was banned shortly after the 1979 Revolution and its members have long faced systematic persecution.

Updated: January 25, 2022, 2:45 PM