When jailed Iranian poet and filmmaker Baktash Abtin died in a hospital in Tehran, rights groups quickly pointed the finger at authorities.
The 48-year-old dissident died on January 8 after twice contracting COVID-19 at Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. Doctors had placed Abtin, who suffered from coronary heart disease, in a medical coma before he was transferred to a hospital.
Rights defenders claim Abtin, a prominent writer and free-speech advocate, was denied proper medical care and blamed authorities for his death.
Accusing authorities of neglect, a group of fellow political prisoners launched a hunger strike days after Abtin’s death. The protest has sought to highlight the systematic mistreatment of inmates and the denial of medical care in Iran’s prisons.
On January 16, six prisoners in Evin Prison stopped eating and drinking. After several days, they started drinking but still refused food. At least three other prisoners -- at the Gharchak Women's Prison and the Greater Tehran Central Penitentiary -- joined the hunger strike.
The Iranian Writers Association, which Abtin was a member of, called on the protesting prisoners to end their hunger strike and not endanger their lives.
“This hunger strike has been widely reported in Iran and around the world, and this shows that the prisoners have achieved their goal of protesting the criminal murder of Baktash Abtin,” the association said in a statement.
Despite the call, six prisoners are still refusing to eat, despite pressure by prison authorities and their deteriorating physical condition, a source who is in contact with some of the prisoners told RFE/RL.
The source, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by authorities, said the inmates are demanding “deterrent” action against those responsible for Abtin’s “murder” to prevent such incidents in the future.
The source added that prison authorities have prevented the inmates on hunger strike from making phone calls and having visitors. The prisoners have also been told that they will only receive medical attention if they end their strike, the source said.
One inmate was transferred to a ward holding nonpolitical prisoner in a bid to pressure him to start eating, the source said, adding that another two prisoners were transferred from Evin Prison to the Greater Tehran Central Penitentiary. Conditions at that facility have been described in the past as “appalling.”
“These political prisoners are trying to warn the world of a brewing catastrophe in Iran’s prisons,” Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the New York-based Center For Human Rights In Iran, told RFE/RL. “The situation is so urgent and frightening that they’re starving themselves to be heard.”
Abtin was serving a six-year prison sentence related to his ties to the Iranian Writers' Association, whose members are frequently pressured by the authorities, and due to his visitation of graves of victims of alleged political assassinations. He was found guilty of “anti-government propaganda."
He had been imprisoned along with two fellow Iranian Writers' Association board members -- Reza Khandan Mahabadi and Keyvan Bajan -- since September 2020. The open expression advocacy group PEN America in October jointly awarded the three writers the 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom To Write Award.
Abtin's imprisonment amid the coronavirus pandemic was harshly criticized by rights watchdogs.
“Neglected within Iran’s Evin Prison, his death was entirely preventable,” said Suzanne Nosel, the chief executive officer at PEN America, in a January 8 statement. “COVID is a natural killer, but Abtin’s death was aided and abetted by the Iranian government every step of the way.”
Nossel described Evin Prison as a “perpetual super-spreader” and said Abtin’s existing medical issues meant his detention at the facility was “an effective death sentence.”
“Abtin was denied medical treatment, his co-morbidities were ignored, and at times he was shackled to his bed,” she said.
Abtin’s brother, Arman Kazemi, said the shackles injured his ankles and put him under psychologically stress. Kazemi added that Abtin was shackled even though he was barely able to move or speak.
Kazemi criticized authorities for not sending Abtin earlier to a hospital for treatment.
“When my brother was taken from prison to a hospital, his physical condition was so bad that we could hear just a few of the words that came out of his mouth,” he told the Iranian news site Hadese24.ir on January 26.
Deaths In Prison
A week before Abtin’s death, political prisoner Adel Kianpur died in Sheiban Prison in the southwestern city of Ahvaz.
He had staged a weeklong hunger strike to protest his imprisonment, according to the Ahvaz Human Rights Organization. Rights groups said Kianpur was sentenced without due process and any evidence against him. He was serving a three-year sentence on national security charges.
Iran’s judiciary later claimed that Kianpur had not been on hunger strike and died suddenly after being transferred to a hospital.
“This is a pandemic and at least two political prisoners have died in Iran just this month alone, one from COVID-19, the other after a hunger strike,” said Ghaemi. “Neither would have lost their lives like this if they weren’t arbitrarily imprisoned.”
Ghaemi called on Iranian authorities to release all political prisoners.
Dozens of prisoners are believed to have died in Iran’s prisons due to mistreatment, including beatings and torture, and a lack of proper medical care.
Last year,Amnesty International said Iranian authorities have failed to provide accountability for at least 72 deaths in prison since January 2010.
The rights group said it believes the real number of deaths in custody is likely much higher due to the lack of transparency in Iran’s justice system.
Scores of political prisoners, including prominent rights advocates such as Nasrin Sotoudeh and Narges Mohammadi, have gone on hunger strike in recent years to protest their imprisonment and prison conditions.