Iran puts pressure on outspoken political prisoners with jail swaps

Prominent opposition figures moved into harsh conditions as punishment for speaking out

Iranian lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and her husband Reza Khandan. Amnesty International
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Some of Iran’s most outspoken political prisoners are being moved to new jails far from their families as part of a campaign of harassment against the regime’s most-effective critics, a human rights group has said.

Campaigners say the transfer of lawyers, labour campaigners and women’s rights activists from Tehran’s notorious Evin jail accelerated in the last year as the leadership seeks to dilute the influence of significant opposition figures. Women, in particular, have been targets, campaigners say.

“This is a deliberate attempt by the Islamic regime in Iran to exert more psychological pressure and torture on political prisoners,” said Shiva Mahbobi, of the Campaign to Free Political Prisoners in Iran.

Those affected include lawyer and campaigner Nasrin Sotoudeh, who is serving a minimum of 12 years in prison for anti-regime propaganda after defending a woman protesting against the mandatory wearing of the hijab.

Ms Sotoudeh is one of dozens of prominent campaigners moved in the past two years with little notice. She was transferred in October last year to the largest and most notorious women’s prison, Qarchak, in the city of Varamin, 35 kilometres from Tehran.

Iran Prison Atlas, a US-based group which monitors Iranian penal policy, said at least 18 women and 10 male political prisoners were moved from Evin in the past year.

“The recent political prisoner transfers from Evin appear to target specific women activists,” an Iran Prison Atlas researcher said.

She said some women “have not been sent to Evin’s women’s ward because authorities did not want them to interact with other women activists there, fearing they would be encouraged and become more politically active".

Qarchak jail is infamous for its filthy conditions, lack of safe drinking water and torture of inmates where prisoners are lined up at the gallows to await their executions.

Ms Sotoudeh wrote to the UN Secretary General in February to protest against the executions of nine prisoners at Qarchak.

Political prisoners have been handcuffed and prevented from making phone calls to their families before they are moved, the group said.

The husband of one political prisoner wrote to Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to highlight her case after she was moved between three prisons in a single day.

“Unfortunately, the prisoners have no refuge or protector,” said Arash Sadeghi, whose wife Golrokh Iraee, was jailed after campaigning for women’s rights. “These pressures are aimed at defeating the critics and in order to achieve its goal, the government uses their harshest and most violent methods.”

The CFPPI, run by exiled former political prisoners, has logged increasing numbers of prisoners being moved since February 2021.

It cited the case of Soheil Arabi – an atheist blogger and vocal defender of prisoner rights – who was transferred several times to Fashafuyeh jail 32 kilometres south of Tehran following his sentencing for blasphemy in 2013.

He was held with non-political prisoners suffering from contagious diseases, the campaign group said. Political prisoners are often more isolated from other inmates but are generally held in better conditions, say researchers.

Inmates held at Fashafuyeh included Alireza Shir Mohammad Ali, who was stabbed and killed by other prisoners after alleged incitement by prison guards following his arrest over anti-government protests in 2018.

Former inmates say most of the prisoners are homeless addicts who should be in hospital rather than prison.