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The Iranian government should immediately allow an independent investigation into the suspicious death in prison of student activist Akbar Mohammadi, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch said that if responsibility for Mohammadi’s death in Tehran’s Evin prison on July 30 lies with the prison or other state authorities, the relevant individuals should be identified and prosecuted.

Mohammadi, 38, is the second inmate to die in the notorious Evin prison in the past three years. In June 2003, Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian-Iranian photojournalist, died while in custody there. Iranian authorities arrested her as she was photographing Evin prison. A few days later, Kazemi fell into a coma and died. According to lawyers for Kazemi's family, her body showed signs of torture. The Iranian authorities have not charged anyone in connection with her death.

“Every death in custody must be investigated,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “But the failure to prosecute anyone for Kazemi’s death underlines the need for an independent inquiry into Mohammadi’s death.”

Human Rights Watch called for an independent commission comprised of Iranian lawyers and medical experts to investigate and report publicly on the circumstances resulting in Mohammadi’s death. Human Rights Watch also expressed its serious concern for the health and safety of other prisoners held for their political beliefs inside Iran’s prisons.

The authorities arrested Mohammadi in 1999 following his participation in student protests at Tehran University. He was originally sentenced to death in September 1999, but his sentence was commuted to 15 years in prison in April 2001.

Several sources told Human Rights Watch that after his arrest in 1999, Mohammadi was severely tortured and ill-treated, leading to serious health problems.

Ali Afshari, a student leader, was imprisoned in the same wing as Mohammadi in Evin prison from March 2002 to October 2003. Afshari told Human Rights Watch that Mohammadi told him in detail of his torture and beatings. Another former detainee, who was also imprisoned with Mohammadi in Evin prison, and knew him well, confirmed that Mohammadi had been badly tortured and that his health had deteriorated.

Mohammadi’s brother, Reza Mohammadi, also stated that interrogators severely tortured Mohammadi after his arrest in 1999. “He was healthy before his arrest in 1999, but during his detention he developed several complications, including internal bleeding, injury to his spinal cord and lung infection,” Reza Mohammadi told Human Rights Watch.

In July 2004, government medical authorities determined that Mohammadi’s continued imprisonment endangered his health and that he required immediate medical attention. In July 2004, Mohammadi was released on an indefinite medical leave and reportedly underwent at least three major operations. He was receiving medical treatment in his hometown of Amol until June 2006.

On June 11, security agents re-arrested Mohammadi in his home without any warning and put him in Evin prison. The authorities did not provide any reason for his arrest. Mohammadi’s lawyer, Khalil Bahramian, was informed that Mohammadi went on hunger strike on July 25 to protest his return to prison. He said that, upon learning of his client’s hunger strike, he asked to visit him, but prison officials denied his request.

On Monday, July 31, Justice Minister Jamal Karimirad confirmed Mohammadi’s death in custody. He told reporters that “before his death, this prisoner [Mohammadi] was under medical supervision in the prison’s medical clinic and he had stated that he is in good health.” He added, “Ultimately, we must await the autopsy report by the coroner’s office.”

On the same day, the director of prisons, Sohrab Soleimani, said, “Last night Mohammadi’s conditions deteriorated and he was receiving medical treatment, but he insisted to be returned to his cell. Upon his return, his condition worsened again and he passed away while being transferred back to the clinic.”

Soleimani, who had earlier denied the reports, also confirmed that Mohammadi had been on hunger strike since July 25 and was consuming only water and tea. On July 25, when news agencies reported Mohammadi’s hunger strike, Soleimani said, “I absolutely deny this news – Akbar Mohammadi is not on hunger strike.”

“Iran’s judiciary is responsible for Mohammadi’s arrest, his torture and now his death in custody,” said Whitson. “Only an independent investigation can establish why he died, and whether he was tortured, beaten or force-fed. Someone must be held accountable for Mohammadi’s death.”

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