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After Iran’s release of Michael White, time to focus on all political prisoners

Written By | Jun 10, 2020
White, Farsi, Evin House, Iran, Prison, Political Prisoners

By Ehsan Iran – روزی روزگاری اوین – عکسها از وبلاگ خرداد 88 from Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0,

FRANCE: After nearly two years of wrongful detention at Evin Prison, Iran releases US Navy veteran Michael R. White. White’s release was an apparent swap for an Iranian national who was convicted of sanctions violations in US court. (Navy vet Michael White back in US after release from Iran detention)

White had been prosecuted on vague charges of “insulting the supreme leader” and sentenced to a staggering 10 years in prison.

On the other hand, White is the second American to be released in six months. Chinese-American graduate student named Xiyue Wang, had also been handed a 10-year sentence after his pre-approved library research was misrepresented as spying.

Wang’s release had in turn been preceded by that of Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen, and permanent US resident.

Naturally, Wang confirmed details about his mistreatment and the dire situation in Evin Prison after returning to the US.

Marzieh Farsi: A fraction of Iran’s hostages receive international attention

Details of abuse include severe overcrowding, poor ventilation, lack of sanitation, beatings, and routine psychological torture. All recognized, or at least widely suspected prior to Wang’s release.

Reports from the inside

The harsh conditions in Evin and other Iranian prison facilities have been exposed on many occasions by political detainees, often with the help of an intelligence network affiliated with the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.

Each time a Western hostage returns from the Islamic Republic, it is a revelation about the hardships faced by all Iranian prisoners. No doubt, White’s return will be much the same. It will increase the sense of urgency regarding the release of the three American citizens who are still known to be captives of the regime, as well as several other Western nationals.

The urgency, both for Iranians and for hostages, is further amplified by the dire conditions in which the Islamic Republic finds itself. The novel coronavirus has affected the country more severely than any other in the Middle East, and perhaps more severely than most of the world.

Iran exploits COVID-19 pandemic, accelerates political imprisonments

While official statistics suggest that more than 8,500 Iranians have died from Covid-19 as of June 10. PMOI intelligence has also investigated this topic and has found that Tehran is dramatically downplaying the impact.

Assessments of Iranian hospital and morgue records, as well as various eyewitness accounts, point to a death toll that is rapidly nearing 50,000 – more than six times the official estimate.

Waiting for Michael White’s report on his imprisonment

As Michael White begins to speak out from the long-sought comfort of home, he will be able to provide insight into the effects of this situation on the prison population. But attentive Western policymakers have already developed at least a partial understanding of the crisis, which sparked coordinated hunger strikes and desperate riots among panicked inmates in several Iranian facilities over the past few months.

The Iranian regime – tottering on the edge of the precipice

One hunger strike in Greater Tehran Penitentiary was preceded by an open letter that described the facility’s persistent abuses. The petitioners alleging authorities were using the chaos of the coronavirus outbreak to exacerbate these abuses. It specifically pointed to the apparent disappearance of fellow inmates who had been taken from their cells without formal transfer orders.

Such enforced disappearance is a longstanding topic of concern in the Islamic Republic

The Islamic Republic maintains the world’s highest rate of executions per capita but routinely carries out some of its hangings in secret.

Tehran would surely try to explain away questions about the aforementioned disappearances by pointing to its announcement of mass furloughs that were to be carried out in order to reduce the spread of coronavirus.

But in the absence of international monitoring of Iranian prisons, it is virtually impossible to confirm that such furloughs took place on the scale that the regime claims. Furthermore, there are serious reasons to doubt the regime’s claims, if only because the judiciary has not stopped adding to the population of political prisoners during this period.

In fact, prosecutions are still ongoing for participants in a nationwide uprising in November 2019. A number of people have been given multi-year sentences for peaceful protest, and at least one has been sentenced to death. The regime has even been arresting people specifically for speaking out about the coronavirus outbreak and for contradicting the official narrative.

In early May, the head of the national police force identified 320 such instances of “rumor-mongering,” which could result in sentences of three years, even if no additional charges are filed.

If confined to Iranian prisons amidst the virus that they tried to warn people about, these people would be at extraordinary risk not only of infection but also death. This is because Iran has a long history of denying access to medical treatment as a form of pressure or extrajudicial punishment.

The US must look wider than American prisoners

So while the US should be commended for securing the release of one of its own citizens, it should also be encouraged to view this occasion as the starting point for more aggressive action in support of all those who are still suffering in Evin and other prisons. One such action may consist of amplifying the voices of those who are already advocating for Iranian prisoners, and for Iranians in general, but whose voices often go unheard in the West.

Many such advocates will be assembled in one place later in the summer when the National Council of Resistance of Iran holds its annual gathering in support of regime change and democratic governance. The event will see participation from a wide range of political supporters of the NCRI and will give a platform to numerous personal stories about oppression and abuse at the hands of Iran’s clerical regime.

Of course, the NCRI also has its own policy recommendations to offer to foreign allies. That the summer gathering will provide a forum for discussion of these, as well. At base, observers can expect endorsement of strategies akin to the “maximum pressure” put into place by the Trump administration in 2018.

NCRI President Maryam Rajavi has often said that “firmness is the only language the mullahs understand.”

The releases of Xiyue Wang and Michael White are arguably signs of that language proving effective in real-time. But the real proof will come when that same language is applied to broader issues of human rights abuse. Ideally at the hands of a broad coalition of democratic nations whose leaders have learned the lessons of Iran’s prisons and its hostage-taking.


Hamid Enayat

Hamid Enayat is an independent Iranian political analyst and writer based in Europe.