Iran has opened the door – just a crack – to provide a glimpse of life in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, home to many of the country’s highest-profile political prisoners.
Foreign ambassadors for 45 countries visited Evin last week, an attempt, “to rebut the false human rights claims made by some western governments and media, including on our prison conditions,” according to Kazem Gharib Abadi, deputy of foreign affairs for the High Council for Human Rights which arranged the visit.
Following the visit, Tasnim News Agency, which is close to hardliners in Iran, claimed several ambassadors were “astonished” by the quality of this prison. Less astonishing is the fact that none of the political prisoners serving sentences there after seriously flawed trials participated in meetings with any of the foreign diplomats. Nor was the topic of due process rights even reported to have been discussed in the visit.
Iranian rights defenders and former political prisoners have expressed skepticism the visit was nothing more than a cynical public relations effort. “These are usually engineered meetings where they prepare room and couple of prisoners before for them,” Taghi Rahmani, a political activist who spent 13 years in prison, told Radio Farda.
Authorities have closed Evin prison to independent international and national human rights investigators for more than a decade. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression were the last international experts to visit the prison in 2003, including ward 209, where political prisoners are kept under Ministry of Intelligence supervision.
No UN rapporteur – including the special rapporteur on Iran – has been granted access to the country in more than a decade. There are at least ten standing requests by different UN human rights experts to visit Iran, in addition to regular requests from human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, to meet with officials in Iran and discuss rights concerns with them.
In this restrictive context, the judiciary’s apparent attempt to offer even limited access to Iran’s prison system to outside observers is a positive one. But if they want to signal something more than a public relations ploy, Iran should grant unrestricted access not just to foreign diplomats but also UN rights bodies and independent local and international human rights experts to these prisons, in which case due process violations, lack of fair trials and prison conditions will undoubtedly be topics of discussion.