(Beirut) – Iran’s judiciary should reveal the result of any investigation of the reports that prison guards severely beat several dozen political prisoners in Tehran’s Evin Prison in April 2014. The authorities should discipline all those responsible for using unjustified force, regardless of rank or position. They should also immediately and unconditionally release anyone held for peacefully exercising their fundamental rights.
In a May 22 letter to Iranian judiciary officials responsible for the administration of the prison system, Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the credible reports of severe beatings in Ward 350 on or after April 17. Human Rights Watch requested information about any investigations of the attack or disciplinary action against prison officials. Iranian officials have not responded, and Human Rights Watch is not aware of any meaningful remedial action taken by the government.
“The Iran judiciary may be hoping that stonewalling will make the reports about mass beatings of prisoners go away, but the response is yet another damning indictment against a judiciary that has proven both unwilling and unable to administer justice,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “Judicial officials owe these men and their families at least an acknowledgement that those who ordered and carried out these beatings will be punished.”
The beatings, which some officials have denied and others have characterized as clashes with prisoners who refused to obey orders, took place after security guards attempted to conduct a search for contraband. Sources familiar with the episode, including family members of the prisoners, told Human Rights Watch that dozens of security and prison guards ordered prisoners to vacate their rooms and brutally beat those who refused.
They said prison officials forced 30 or so prisoners to walk through the hallway as guards, who had lined up on both sides, punched, kicked, and beat them with batons, seriously injuring some of them. Some guards targeted the prisoners’ heads, while others aimed at their bodies, arms, and legs.
The sources said that officials also punished at least 31 prisoners in other ways, including with prolonged solitary confinement and degrading and humiliating treatment. One, who was already facing a death sentence for his alleged ties to an opposition group, has subsequently been executed.
Among the 31 prisoners are prominent rights activists such as Abdolfattah Soltani, a defense lawyer; Mohammad Sedigh Kaboudvand, a Kurdish journalist and rights activist; Behnam Ebrahimzadeh, a labor rights activist; and Saeed Haeri, a member of the disbanded Committee for Human Rights Reporters.
The 27 others are: Gholamreza Khosravi Savadjani, Majid Asadi, Asadollah Hadi, Reza Akbari Monfared, Javad Fouladvand, Mehrdad Ahankhah, Asadollah Asadi, Soheil Arabi, Amir Ghazian, Mohammad Davari, Saeed Matinpour, Yashar Darolshafah, Mehdi Khodaei, Semko Khalghati, Soheil Babadi, Soroush Sabet, Ali Asgari, Davar Hosseini Vojdan, Arash Hampay, Behzad Arabgol, Mostafa Abdi, Mohammad Shojaei, Omid Behrouzi, Mostafa Rismanbaf, Mohammad Amin Hadavi, Houtain Dolati, and Esmaeil Barzegari.
On April 23, less than a week after the Ward 350 attack, Iran’s Judiciary announced it had removed Gholamhossein Esmaeili, the head of Iran’s Prisons Organization, from his position and assigned him to a post as head of Tehran’s judiciary. Iran’s Prisons Organization oversees the administration of the country’s prisons and operates under the authority of the judiciary. Judiciary authorities steadfastly denied any connection between Esmaeili’s removal and the beatings, however.
On May 14, a government spokesman, Mohamed-Bagher Nobakht, said the government would investigate the episode. Since his announcement, however, other government officials, including Iran’s justice minister, have downplayed the scope and reach of such an investigation, and the prisoners and their families have not received any specific information about the status of the investigation or findings.
Since Human Rights Watch sent its letter, authorities have transferred at least 10 prisoners from Ward 350 to Rajai Shahr Prison, in the city of Karaj, 45 kilometers west of Tehran. After the April events, prison officials had transferred five of them – Monfared, Fouladvand, Hadi, Arabgol, and Savadjani – to solitary confinement cells in Ward 240 of Evin Prison. Authorities also arrested the brothers of Darolshafah and Haeri, but have since released them on bail.
While it is not clear why authorities transferred several of the Ward 350 prisoners or arrested two of their family members, Human Rights Watch is concerned that some of these actions may have been retaliation for the April events. In its letter, Human Rights Watch expressed concern over harsh retaliatory and disciplinary measures, reminding authorities that both Iranian and international law provide guarantees of protection for the accused.
On May 31, Rajai Shahr Prison authorities executed Savadjani, who had been under a death sentence on the charge of moharebeh, or “enmity against God,” for his alleged ties to the Mojahedin-e Khalq opposition group. Prior to Savadjani’s execution a source familiar with his case told Human Rights Watch that authorities had told Savadjani that they considered him one of the main culprits in the April 17 attack and that because his sentence was final he should be executed.
However, there were numerous procedural and substantive errors in his trial and conviction, and officials had ignored important amendments to the penal code that required the judiciary to review and vacate his execution order. Human Rights Watch had called on Iranian authorities to halt the execution.
“The attack in Evin Prison is symptomatic of a much larger problem regarding the authorities’ ill-treatment of prisoners convicted and sentenced on patently political charges,” Stork said. “We talk so often about the terrible abuse in prison that we forget that people should not be there to begin with.”