Iran and the United States have engaged in some recent back-and-forth over the issue of their citizens being held in the other country’s prisons. There is widespread speculation about prospective prisoner swaps, but official statements are at odds about the actual status of relevant discussions. The US says there has been no offer from the Iranian side, while Iran says that the US has refused to respond to inquiries.
Whatever the truth is, Western governments should stand ready to take full advantage of any opportunity to save their citizens from the harsh conditions of Iranian prisons. The need to secure their freedom has become much more urgent in the wake of severe Covid-19 outbreaks, including one that was publicly acknowledged this week by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
In that incident, a single vector for transmission of the virus was introduced to a population of 120 prisoners, and before authorities were aware of a problem, 100 of them had become infected. There is no evidence that Western nationals were affected by that particular outbreak, but it is only one of many, and nearly all of Iran’s political prisoners have been left at the mercy of the novel coronavirus.
Meanwhile, the Iranian regime is doing everything it can to downplay the severity of its own crisis while projecting its failures onto foreign adversaries. This has led to unusually loud appeals for the release of lawfully detained Iranian nationals from Western prisons, particularly those in the US.
Dozens of Iranians are currently serving sentences there, mostly for sanctions violations. Meanwhile, at least four Americans are being held by the Islamic Republic, and none of them appear to have been credibly accused of a crime.
In January 2018, nine ecological researchers were arrested, apparently because their work presented a challenge to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ land-use plans. One of them, Morad Tahbaz, holds citizenship in Iran, the US, and Britain, and this seems to have affected the court’s ultimate sentencing. He is now serving a 10-year prison term.
After traveling to Iran to visit a woman with whom he was having a long-distance relationship, another American detainee Michael White was vaguely accused of “insulting the supreme leader” and subjected to a typically unfair show-trial. After serving roughly two years of his 10-year sentence, he was granted release to the Swiss embassy in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Like countless Iranian prisoners, White reportedly contracted Covid-19 in the cramped and unsanitary conditions of his cell. His health had already been a topic of great concern for his family and other advocates, in light of a prior battle with cancer, which had ended with remission just shortly before his trip to Iran.
Iran is notorious for denying medical treatment to its prisoners, especially those who are held as hostages or on political grounds. The four known American detainees are widely regarded as hostages, as are a number of citizens of the United Kingdom, Australia, Sweden, and other Western countries who have been detained on similarly spurious grounds in recent years.
It is difficult to say with certainty how many of these dual and foreign nationals have been unjustly detained in the Islamic Republic, since their cases are often shrouded in secrecy, both by the Iranian regime and by the diplomats from their home countries who are working to secure their release. Even among those who have made recent headlines, confirmation of their arrests has sometimes been delayed by many months.
To the extent that this situation derives from Tehran’s own secrecy about its judicial proceedings, it underscores the severe risk faced not only by foreign hostages but also by domestic political prisoners and the general prison population, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. This is because the impulse toward cover-up extends beyond arrests and prosecutions, and into the areas of prisoner abuse, inmates’ health, and prison management.
The Iranian judiciary claims to have released nearly 100,000 prisoners on medical furlough since the pandemic began. But some inmates have loudly disputed this while emphasizing that prisoner abuse is continuing unabated and is even being exacerbated by the threat of enforced disappearance. Together with the looming threat of Covid-19, this has prompted uprisings in multiple facilities, which left at least 36 prisoners dead.
In the end, they will counted alongside a quantity of Covid-19 victims that is yet to be determined. Tehran insists that furloughs have slowed the spread and that there have been relatively few instances of the illness inside prison cells. But the clerical regime has drastically under-reported the death toll among civilians, and this is much harder to conceal from public view than the situation in heavily-guarded prisons.
Officially, a total of 6,988 Iranians had died from Covid-19 as of Sunday. But investigations by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) have determined that an accurate figure would be more than six times higher. And even this conclusion depends upon incomplete information, especially where prisoner fatalities are concerned. It is, therefore, safe to say that one cannot understate the danger that could now be facing Western nationals who are now trapped at the very heart of that situation.
Neither can one understate the urgency of securing their release. Recent rumblings from the Iranian regime suggest that there is real potential for Western diplomats to finally achieve that goal under the present circumstances. But even after doing so, they must not forget the ongoing plight of Iran’s own prisoners, who are now suffering and have always suffered in absence of any meaningful international monitoring.
When Western nationals return home from Iranian prisons, the world should pay close attention to the stories they tell. And when those stories prove to be as horrifying as one might suspect, Tehran should be brought under renewed pressure to cooperate with human rights groups and finally allow experts into the country, and especially into its jails.