At the height of the coronavirus pandemic in Iran last year, a group of outspoken campaigners were preparing to sue the authorities for mismanaging the crisis and hampering the vaccine rollout.
But the seven activists and lawyers, who became known in Iran as the "health defenders," were arrested before they could file their legal challenge against the government and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Less than a year later, following a trial held behind closed doors, a court in Tehran handed five of them prison terms ranging from 95 days to four years, according to their lawyer. The five, originally charged with spreading propaganda against the state and disrupting public order, were convicted of colluding to commit crimes against national security.
Many Iranians were angered by the chaotic response of officials to the pandemic. The government was widely accused of hiding the real numbers of hospitalizations and deaths. There was also criticism over the delayed rollout of vaccines and Khamenei's ban on the import of vaccines from the United States and Britain, which was seen as a political move.
Critics have said that the mismanagement of the pandemic and the slow vaccination rollout led to thousands of preventable deaths in Iran, which had the Middle East's deadliest outbreak.
'Not A Crime'
Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the prison terms handed out to lawyers Mostafa Nili, Arash Keykhosro, and Reza Faghihi as well as rights defender and journalist Mehdi Mahmudian and activist Maryam Afrafaraz.
"Sentencing prominent human rights defenders and lawyers for attempting to hold the government accountable for their response to the COVID-19 pandemic is a new low, even for the Iranian government, and shows their primary objective of protecting themselves rather than governing for the people," HRW researcher Tara Sepehrifar told RFE/RL.
Babak Paknia, the lawyer for the defendants, revealed their sentences in an interview with the Emtedad news site on June 20. He said Mahmudian and Nili were each given four-year prison terms and banned from "media activities" for two years. Nili was also banned from practicing law for two years.
Paknia said Keykhosro received a two-year prison term, a two-year ban on practicing law, and a one-year ban on "media activities." Faghihi was sentenced to six months in prison and Afrafaraz was given a 95-day sentence, according to Paknia.
"Based on this verdict, our most honorable, trustworthy, and honest activists and lawyers have been sentenced to imprisonment and deprived of some of their social and professional rights," Paknia told Emtedadnet.
He described the sentences as "strange" and said that he would launch an appeal. Paknia said he only attended the first day of the trial that began in October in Tehran's Revolutionary Court. After that, the authorities did not allow him to attend the proceedings even as a "spectator," he said.
Paknia told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda on June 21 that the court had found the group guilty of violating Article 610 of Iran’s Islamic Penal Code, which imposes a penalty of up to five years in prison when "two or more individuals collude and conspire to commit crimes against the national or foreign security of the country or prepare the facilities to commit the aforementioned crime.”
The conviction stems from the five allegedly creating a closed discussion group on social media forum Clubhouse.
"The court argued that [their] group on Clubhouse was secret and they didn't allow anyone else to enter the group," he said, adding that the court concluded that "there was collusion to commit a crime."
Paknia maintained that the five had not committed any crime, and that filing a complaint against state officials is a right under Iranian law. "Whether you want to file a complaint against the supreme leader or the president, all people are equal in front of the law. Therefore, coming together to file a complaint against Iranian leaders is not a crime," he said.
The arrests of the seven campaigners in August 2021 led to widespread anger and calls for their release by rights groups.
'Recklessness' And 'Inaction'
Three of the campaigners -- Mahmudian, Keykhosro, and Nili -- were kept in pretrial detention at Evin prison. Nili was released on bail in December.
In an open letter issued in October 2021, the three said they had been held in solitary confinement for over a month without any contact with the outside world.
They maintained that the authorities were to blame for the preventable deaths of thousands of Iranians and the suffering of millions more because of "recklessness, paying lip service, inaction, and prioritizing factional, economic, and political interests over the health of the people."
At the height of the pandemic last summer, Iran was recording between 500 to 600 deaths and about 50,000 infections every day. But after accelerating the vaccination drive, the figures have dropped sharply. On June 2, Health Minister Bahram Einollahi said the country recorded no COVID-19 cases for the first time in two years.
Iran's official death toll stands at 141,370, while the country has recorded more than 7,200,000 infections. On June 21, the Health Ministry reported four deaths and 187 new cases.
The real number of infections and deaths in the country of around 84 million people is believed to be significantly higher.