UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has called on Iran to release human rights defenders, lawyers, and political prisoners held in the country's overcrowded prisons, amid worsening sanitary conditions during the coronavirus pandemic.
"Shortages of water, hygiene products, and disinfectant, insufficient protective equipment and testing kits, as well as a lack of isolation spaces and inadequate medical care have led to the spread of the virus among detainees and have reportedly resulted in a number of deaths," Bachelet said in a statement on October 6.
Iran is the country worst hit by COVID-19 in the Middle East, with nearly 480,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and over 27,000 deaths, according to the country's Health Ministry.
Some 120,000 inmates have been temporarily released to avoid further infections, according to official figures, though many have been required to return and people serving longer sentences for national security offenses were excluded from the release policy.
As a result, "most of those who may have been arbitrarily detained -- including human rights defenders, lawyers, dual and foreign nationals, conservationists, and others deprived of their liberty for expressing their views or exercising other rights -- have been placed at a heightened risk of contracting the virus," according to Bachelet.
Bachelet cited the case of prominent human rights lawyer and women's rights defender Nasrin Sotoudeh, whom she described as a "persistent and courageous advocate for the rights of her fellow Iranians."
The 57-year-old Sotoudeh was arrested in 2018 and later sentenced to a total of 38 1/2 years in prison and 148 lashes over her defense of political prisoners, including women protesting the compulsory hijab law.
Last month, she was transferred from a prison cell to a hospital north of Tehran following a hunger strike for better prison conditions and the release of political prisoners.
Days later, she was taken back to Tehran's Evin prison and ended her hunger strike after nearly 50 days due to deteriorating health, according to her husband.
"I am very concerned that Nasrin Sotoudeh's life is at risk," Bachelet said, reiterating her call for the authorities to "immediately release her and grant her the possibility of recuperating at home before undergoing the medical treatment of her choice."
"It is time for the government to cease violating her own rights because of the efforts she has made on behalf of others," Bachelet said.
The UN rights chief also expressed concern about the persistent "use of the criminal justice system as a tool to silence civil society" in Iran.
"Expressing dissent is not a crime. It is a fundamental right that should be protected and upheld," she said.