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Baktash Abtin. © 2020 Private

(Beirut) – The death of the writer and poet Baktash Abtin in custody is emblematic of the dire situation Iranian authorities have created for imprisoned critics of the government, Human Rights Watch said today. Iranian officials should conduct transparent and impartial investigations into recent reported deaths in custody due to alleged negligence, hold those responsible accountable, and release all wrongfully detained dissidents.

On January 8, 2022, the Iranian Writers’ Association (IWA) reported that Abtin, 47, who was battling a second Covid-19 infection since being detained in September 2020, had died in a hospital in Tehran. Abtin, imprisoned on abusive national security charges, was put into an induced coma the first week of January after prison authorities allegedly delayed transferring him to an outside medical facility when he showed symptoms. The authorities pressured Abtin’s family to bury him more quickly than they had planned, the IWA reported.  

“Iran’s justice officials bear responsibility for the death of Baktish Abtin, who should never have been imprisoned for his work,” said Tara Sepehri Far, senior Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch. “All prior government promises about investigating detention abuses ring hollow when prisoners continue to die in the face of the authorities’ utter lack of care for their lives.”

Abtin is the second prisoner in Iran to die since the start of 2022. On January 1, the Human Rights Activists News Agency (Hrana) reported that Kian Adelpour died under “ambiguous circumstances” after going on a hunger strike in Ahwaz prison to protest his case. The activists Sasan Nikfans and Behnam Mahjoobi died in prison in 2020. Their families allege that prison authorities delayed or restricted their access to health care.

The IWA stated that Abtin did not receive medical care for four days in prison before being transferred to Taleghani hospital. His family was also kept unaware of his medical condition for several days. Since the beginning of his sentence, Abtin had unsuccessfully applied for medical leave due to his underlying health issues that Covid-19 could have exacerbated. He was previously hospitalized in April 2021, when he contracted the coronavirus for the first time.

On May 15, 2019, Branch 28 of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court sentenced Abtin and his codefendants Keyvan Bajan and Reza Khandan Mahabadi to six years in prison on politically motivated charges of “assembly and collusion to act against national security” and “propaganda against the state” that stemmed from Abtin’s leadership of the IWA and their advocacy against state censorship. The authorities summoned them to begin their sentences in September 2020, even as an earlier wave of the pandemic was ravaging Iranian prisons. 

During the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, Iranian authorities reportedly released or temporarily freed 850,000 prisoners, but dozens of peaceful dissidents have been excluded from those measures.

Human Rights Watch reiterates the call made in a joint statement on January 7 urging Iranian authorities to release those unjustly detained and not to summon political prisoners to serve their sentences while the conditions inside Evin prison and other facilities remain unsafe.

“We support the more than a dozen Iranian political prisoners who recently called the government and judiciary responsible for creating the conditions that put the lives of imprisoned dissidents at grave risk,” Sepehri Far said.

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