Since February, some 120,000 inmates have been temporarily released from Iran’s squalid and overcrowded prisons, according to the United Nations. But that has not included prominent political prisoners. On the contrary, said U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet in a statement Tuesday, “measures designed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 have been used in a discriminatory way against this specific group of prisoners.”
The case of Nasrin Sotoudeh, a 57-year-old human rights lawyer, exemplifies that cruelty. Ms. Sotoudeh was arrested in 2018 and sentenced a year later to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes. Her crime? Defending women who peacefully protested Iran’s compulsory head-covering law by removing their hijabs in public. It was the second time the lawyer had been handed a term in the notorious Evin prison; she served time from 2010 to 2013 for defending human rights activists, including the Nobel Prize-winning Shirin Ebadi.
In August, Ms. Sotoudeh launched a hunger strike to protest the regime’s potentially lethal discrimination against political detainees. After more than five weeks of consuming only water, tea, sugar and salt, she was hospitalized on Sept. 19, reportedly with a severe heart condition. Yet only four days later, she was returned to her cell at Evin, where she has remained. Her husband said she ended her hunger strike on Sept. 26 as her health continued to deteriorate.
Ms. Sotoudeh’s treatment prompted a statement from 16 U.N. special rapporteurs and other human rights experts, who said “it is unfathomable that the Iranian authorities would return Ms. Sotoudeh to prison where she is at heightened risk to COVID-19, as well as with her serious heart condition.”
Unfathomable, perhaps, but not unprecedented. The Islamist regime has a long history of vicious repression of peaceful dissent. Even the humanitarian catastrophe of a global pandemic that has killed more than 27,000 of its citizens has not tempered its brutality. The regime is trying to portray itself to governments in Europe and elsewhere in the world as a victim of U.S. aggression; it blames the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign for its poor response to the pandemic. It’s not likely to convince many people as long as Ms. Sotoudeh and others like her remain imprisoned.