(Beirut) – Iranian authorities should investigate the death of a 35-year-old blogger in custody and immediately provide his family with information about the circumstances of his death. Initial reports suggest that he may have died from ill-treatment or torture.
The blogger, Sattar Beheshti was arrested by Iran’s cyberpolice on October 30, 2012, when they raided his mother’s home in Robat Karim, 25 kilometers outside of Tehran. The police confiscated a number of his personal belongings, including his computer. The police unit, also known as “FATA,” was established in January 2011 to enforce laws aimed at regulating online speech and content considered to violate Iran’s national security or moral legislation. People who spoke to the family told Human Rights Watch that the family tried to get information about Beheshti’s whereabouts and the reason for his arrest from security and judicial officials, but that they heard nothing until November 6, 2012, when police officials told the family he had died in custody.
“With more than a dozen deaths in the past four years, Iran’s prisons are rapidly turning into death traps for detainees, including people who should never have been behind bars to begin with,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The onus is on Iranian officials, including high-ranking prison officials and members of the judiciary, to immediately come clean about what happened to Beheshti and punish those responsible.”
The exact circumstances and cause of death are not known at this point, and the authorities have not publicly accepted any responsibility for Beheshti’s death.
His death brings to at least 15 the number of people detained for exercising their basic rights who have since 2009 died in custody or as a result of injuries during their detention from alleged mistreatment or neglect. Human Rights Watch has compiled information from witnesses, family members, and other sources suggesting that at least 13 of them died as a result of physical abuse or torture. No high-ranking officials have been brought to justice for any of these deaths.
According to a report on BBC Persian, authorities buried him in Robat Karim, his hometown, but allowed only his brother-in-law to attend the funeral. A source close to the family told Human Rights Watch that after the family gave interviews to opposition websites about Beheshti’s death, the authorities have put tremendous pressure on the family to stop.
On November 6, 2012, reports surfaced on several opposition sites, including Kalemeand Saham News, both of which are close to opposition figures, that witnesses inside Ward 350 of Evin prison, where many political prisoners are held, had seen Beheshti with injuries on his arms, legs, and face. The unconfirmed reports said that Beheshti had been injured during his arrest and interrogation. The reports indicated that Beheshti’s family, including his ailing mother, became extremely worried about his health and tried to get information about his condition from Evin and other officials without success.
On November 8 Kaleme reproduced a copy of a letter allegedly written bv Beheshti in which he protested his ill-treatment at the hands of Tehran’s cyberpolice. The letter says the police threatened and beat him during interrogation sessions for two days. “I hold [the cyberpolice] responsible for anything that happens to me, and declare that any confessions taken from me were extracted under torture, which I was subjected to during my 12 hours in room 2 of Ward 350 [of Evin prison],” the letter was quoted as saying. Human Rights Watch has not been able to independently verify the authenticity of the letter.
In an October 29 blog attributed to Beheshti called “Criticism,” the author said he had recently been threatened over his blogging activities: “Yesterday they threatened me [and said] tell your mother she will soon have to don a black shroud because you refuse to shut your big mouth.” The author, without identifying who is threatening him, wrote that his harassers threatened to do whatever they wanted to him until and unless he stopped writing, but that he would not stay silent. Human Rights Watch has not been able to independently verify the authenticity of the blog post.
Officials had previously arrested Beheshti for his criticism of the government during student protests that took place in Tehran during July 2003.
Since 2009, Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of ill-treatment, torture, or medical neglect of detainees, some of which led to deaths. On March 6, 2009, Amir Hossein Heshmat Saran, a 49-year-old prisoner at Rajai Shahr prison outside of Tehran, died at the Rajayi Shahr public hospital in Karaj. It was not clear whether Saran died as a result of mistreatment or medical neglect. On March 18 of the same year Omidreza Mirsayafi, a blogger, died in a hospital, authorities said, after doctors diagnosed him with very low blood pressure and transferred him to the prison infirmary. According to reports at the time, his family said he bore signs of ill-treatment, including a broken skull and bruises on his body.
Three detainees – Amir Javadifar, Mohammad Kamrani, and Mohsen Ruholamini – died in July 2009 at Kahrizak detention facility outside of Tehran, which was operated by Iran’s police forces and housed protesters who participated in anti-government demonstrations after the disputed 2009 presidential election and the violent government crackdown that followed. In 2010, the victims’ families and rights activists reported that two other detainees, Ramin Aghazadeh Ghahremani and Abbas Nejati-Kargar, died after their release from the facility, due, they said, to injuries suffered in custody there. Authorities have denied that their deaths are linked injuries at Kahrizak.
In December 2009, a military court charged 11 police officers and a private citizen who allegedly collaborated with the police with murder over the deaths at Kahrizak. On June 30, 2010, Iranian media reported that the military court convicted and sentenced two of the defendants to death, fines, lashings, and monetary compensation to the victims’ families. Nine others received undisclosed prison sentences and fines, according to media reports. But the court acquitted the highest-ranking defendant, General Azizollah Rajabzadeh, who headed Tehran’s police force at the time, of all charges. No other high-ranking security or police officials implicated in the deaths were ever put on trial or brought to justice.
According to Ahwazi Arab rights activists, at least another six detainees have been tortured to death in the custody of security and intelligence forces in connection with anti-government demonstrations that swept across Khuzestan province in April 2011 and again in April 2012.
Hoda Saber, a journalist and political activist who was serving a prison sentence in Ward 350 of Evin prison, died on June 10, 2011, at a Tehran hospital after a hunger strike to protest the death of another political activist who died after security forces attacked her during her father’s funeral. On the eighth day of his hunger strike prison officials transferred Saber to the prison infirmary with chest and stomach pains. The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reported that security officials posing as medical personnel severely beat Saber in the infirmary, and later failed to transfer him to the hospital in a timely matter after he had a heart attack.
International and Iranian law require prison authorities to provide detainees with adequate medical care. Iran’s State Prison Organization regulations state that, if necessary, detainees must be transferred to a hospital outside the prison facility. The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners require authorities to transfer prisoners needing specialist treatment to specialized institutions, including civilian hospitals.
Both Iranian law and international law require prison authorities to provide basic necessities to all prisoners and to treat them with dignity and respect. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a state party, prohibits inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.