Rajai Shahr Prison, Karaj, Iran.

© 2004 Private

(Beirut) – Iranian authorities should immediately carry out an independent and impartial investigation into the death of an imprisoned activist on a hunger strike, Human Rights Watch said today. Anyone found responsible for wrongdoing in the death of Vahid Sayadi Nasiri should be held accountable. Iranian authorities have systematically failed to conduct transparent investigations into at least prior four deaths in custody during 2018.

On December 13, the authorities informed Sayadi Nasiri’s family that he had died in a hospital in Qom. He had been convicted of “insulting the Supreme Leader and sacred belief and propaganda against the state.” He began a hunger strike in September and later asked to be transferred out of a ward that included prisoners convicted of violent crimes, two sources told Human Rights Watch. The authorities have yet to conduct any transparent investigation into the five deaths in detention during 2018, but have claimed that three cases were suicides.

“The deaths of dissidents and others whom Iran’s judiciary should never have imprisoned in the first place is a deadly travesty of justice,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Iranian authorities have a responsibility to protect the lives of all detainees and impartially investigate any deaths that occur.”

Mehdi Kaheh, the prosecutor of Qom, told reporters on December 13 that Sayadi Nasiri was suffering from “liver issues,” that “his condition deteriorated in detention,” and that he died after seven days in the hospital. However, Sayadi Nasiri’s sister, Elaheh, told United States-funded Radio Farda on December 14 that he had been transferred to the hospital a week before for gastrointestinal bleeding and was transferred back to the prison. “The night before when his health deteriorated, he was hospitalized again for a couple of hours,” she said. The Radio Farda website report quoted her as saying that the medical examiners told her that the hunger strike, gastrointestinal bleeding, and the “failure of bowel and liver were the causes of his death.

Radio Farda reported that the government had on March 16 pardoned Sayadi Nasiri, who was serving an eight-year sentence for his social media posts, but that he was rearrested on the same charges on July 23. On December 15, the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) reported that according to an unnamed source in 2015, authorities arrested Sayadi Nasiri for “membership in a terrorist group and planning to take actions,” and had been sentenced to five years in prison.

On March 4, authorities informed the family of Mohammad Raji, a member of the Dervish minority arrested during police clashes with the community on February 19 and 20, that he had died in custody. The authorities have refused to provide any explanation and have threatened reprisals against his family if they speak about it publicly.

On February 10, the family of Kavous Seyed Emami, a well-known environmentalist and professor arrested as part of a crackdown against environmental activists on January 24 and 25, reported that he had died in detention under unknown circumstances. Iranian authorities claimed that he committed suicide, but have not conducted an impartial investigation into his death.

On January 7 and 8, in the aftermath of mass arrests that followed protests across the country, activists reported the deaths of Sina Ghanbari and Vahid Heidari, one in Tehran and the other in Arak. Authorities claimed that both committed suicide.

Other detained activists remain at risk. Farhad Meysami, a human rights defender who was arrested for his peaceful activism against compulsory hijab laws, has been on a hunger strike since August 1 and his condition has deteriorated, his mother reported. The Center for Human Rights in Iran has reported that authorities moved Meysami to the medical facility in Evin prison, where he has been held in isolation. On November 29, a group of United Nations human rights experts expressed alarm at Meysami’s condition, and said they were “deeply disturbed” by the denial of his due process guarantees.

The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Mandela Rules) provide authoritative guidance on international human rights standards. Rule 71 states:

Notwithstanding the initiation of an internal investigation, the prison director shall report, without delay, any custodial death … to a judicial or other competent authority that is independent of the prison administration and mandated to conduct prompt, impartial and effective investigations into the circumstances and causes of such cases. The prison administration shall fully cooperate with that authority and ensure that all evidence is preserved.

Furthermore,

this rule shall equally apply whenever there are reasonable grounds to believe that an act of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment has been committed in prison, irrespective of whether a formal complaint has been received….[S]teps shall be taken immediately to ensure that all potentially implicated persons have no involvement in the investigation.

“Competent, impartial investigations into prisoners’ deaths are an essential first step for ending the impunity of abusive and negligent officials who are turning Iran’s prison system into a morgue for imprisoned activists and critics,” Page said.