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New Reports of Difficult Conditions for Sunni Prisoners in Rajaee Shahr Prison

Keykhosrow Sharafipour in Rajaee Shahr Prison (Photo credit: HRANA)

(September 11, 2014) – In an interview with the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC), a political prisoner has provided important details regarding the cases of Sunni Kurdish prisoners currently held in Ward 10 of Rajaee Shahr Prison. According to this source, Rajaee Shahr Prison currently holds 84 prisoners who have been convicted of crimes relating to adherence to Sunni Islam. All but two of these prisoners are Kurdish. Forty of the Sunni prisoners in Rajaee Shahr have been sentenced to death. 

While these prisoners are officially charged with national security crimes, the source who spoke with IHRDC indicated that in many cases the charges have been leveled following activities that were only of a nonviolent, religious nature. In several cases, for instance, Sunni Kurds have been sentenced to death on the charge of muharibih, or waging war against God, because they were accused of membership in “illegal Salafi groups” —a charge that these prisoners deny.  According to IHRDC’s source, several of the individuals sentenced to death are Sunnis who adhere to the relatively moderate and widespread Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam, and are therefore not in any way affiliated with Salafi groups. Several of these prisoners were reportedly arrested after they disseminated audio compact discs and pamphlets in defense of Sunni Islam, which they believed was under attack by some Shi’a clerics.

Iranian law defines muharibih as “drawing a weapon on the life, property or chastity of people or to cause terror as it creates the atmosphere of insecurity.” It is alleged that no evidence of armed resistance was provided by the government during the trials of Sunni citizens, including those of the forty currently on death row.

Many of these prisoners were tried by Judge Mohammad Moghiseh. In one trial session, Moghiseh reportedly stated that he would not credit the testimony of a Sunni defendant over the report of an interrogator who had loyally served the Islamic Republic for 35 years. In addition, Judge Moghiseh did not allow the defendant’s attorney to speak during the trial and instructed him to limit his defense to submitting a brief, in violation of Article 193 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which codifies a defendant’s right to present a verbal defense in court.

The prison yard in Ward 10 of Rajaee Shahr Prison.

Several Sunni prisoners in Rajaee Shahr Prison are suffering from acute physical ailments, and they are not provided adequate medical care. Keykhosrow Sharafipour, an elderly prisoner with intestinal problems, had to wait two weeks after registering his complaint before he was transferred to a hospital. IHRDC’s source adds that due to a lack of access to clean drinking water, many previously healthy prisoners in Rajaee Shahr have developed kidney stones. One such prisoner, Ghasem Abasteh, was transferred to a medical facility but promptly returned to the prison without receiving any treatment. In addition, the prison pharmacy does not dispense medications that have been prescribed to the prisoners. Instead, the prisoners’ families, who often travel very long distances to Rajaee Shahr Prison are responsible for obtaining the prisoners’ medications.

Another source within Rajaee Shahr Prison indicated that prison authorities often threaten the Sunni death row prisoners with the implementation of their sentences in response to alleged contact with media and requests for better conditions.

Several death sentences for Sunni Kurds at Rajaee Shahr have been upheld by Iran’s Supreme Court, while an estimated 28 death sentences are currently under review. Often, prisoners who are sentenced to death are held for several years with no date set for their execution. These prisoners face execution at any time without prior notice to them, their families or their attorneys.

As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the IRI must respect the freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The arrest and prosecution of Sunni religious activists contravenes Iran’s obligations under Article 18 of the ICCPR. In addition, under the ICCPR the death penalty may only be imposed for “the most serious crimes.” Sentencing Sunni activists to death based on their alleged affiliation with Salafi groups infringes their right to life and violates Article 18 of the ICCPR. Also, the manner in which Sunni activists have been tried, including the fact that their trials have not been public, is in contravention of Iran’s obligations under Article 14 of the ICCPR.