Iran exploits COVID-19 pandemic, accelerates political imprisonments
FRANCE: On February 5, in the early morning, agents of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry raided the home of Marzieh Farsi and took her into custody along with her family. After three weeks of aggressive interrogation, Marzieh’s brother Ahmad, his wife, and their two children were released. Marzieh’s husband and their two children followed one week later.
But Marzieh herself remains in detention, and there is no sign of pending release for the 53-year-old woman.
Furthermore, there’s no indication that specific charges have been filed against her or that the Intelligence Ministry found anything incriminating when tearing apart her home. It appears as though she was targeted for arrest solely based on her family history.
Thirty years earlier, Marzieh was a regular visitor at an Iranian prison where her brother Hossein was serving a twelve-year sentence for opposing the theocratic government that came to power after the 1979 revolution.
After completing the sentence, Hossein Farsi left his homeland. His exile surely seemed necessary in light of the things that he had witnessed during his time behind bars. That period included the several months in 1988, during which Iranian authorities executed a staggering 30,000 political prisoners. The primary target of the massacres was the Mojahedin-e-Khalq Organization (MEK), which was then and remained the leading voice for democracy in Iran.
Given his association with the MEK, it is a wonder that Hossein survived long enough to see the end of his sentence. It is all the more remarkable that he managed to escape the country. Unfortunately, to do so, he needed to leave his family behind.
In the intervening years, the Islamic Republic has made a habit of using threats, intimidation, and arrest of Iranian citizens to exert pressure on expatriates who are beyond the regime’s reach.
Marzieh Farsi’s case is, therefore, not unique.
But not enough Western policymakers and human rights defenders are aware of how prevalent the practice has become. This has had an emboldening effect on the authorities who carry out such campaigns of intimidation. The National Council of Resistance of Iran, a coalition around the MEK, is now reporting that the country appears to be amid a new wave of politically motivated arrests and interrogations.
Marzieh Farsi was arguably one of the first victims of this new wave, which also overlaps with Iran’s coronavirus outbreak. Although Tehran officially announced the first coronavirus-related deaths on February 19, documents from the National Emergency Organization show that suspected cases were admitted to Iranian hospitals before the end of January.
Thus, the outbreak was already underway before the Intelligence Ministry decided to arrest Marzieh and confine her to Evin Prison, where the virus has spread like wildfire.
Preceding thousands of other arrests over the past few months, her case is possibly indicative of an effort to use the confusion and the fear surrounding coronavirus as an opportunity to exert additional pressure on activists and dissidents, including those who are no longer subject to Iranian authority. Marzieh’s advocates aren’t the first ones to suggest this. In March, inmates at Greater Tehran Penitentiary undertook a hunger strike to call attention to rampant mistreatment and to the fact that fellow prisoners had been transferred suddenly and without explanation, leading to concerns about secretive executions and enforced disappearance.
Greater Tehran Penitentiary Hunger Strike
After the Greater Tehran Penitentiary hunger strike went unheeded, prisoners in many facilities resorted to rioting and attempted break-outs. Amnesty International confirmed that at least three dozen of the inmates were killed in the unrest, though unconfirmed reports suggest that the number could be in the hundreds.
The grievances that drove this unrest remain unheeded by the Iranian government. And the international community has done little to compel the regime toward more human behavior. Where the judiciary has selected prisoners for release, it has done so without regard for preexisting health conditions. Some of the most vulnerable people remain incarcerated, including Marzieh Farsi, who suffers from both heart disease and cancer. For her and many others like her, coronavirus would very likely be a death sentence.
Knowing Iran’s history of prisoner abuse, it would seem that this is precisely the point.
An uncontained viral outbreak provides a passive form of leverage as the regime tries to win compliance from prisoners or their families. It is not yet clear what the endgame is in Marzieh’s case. It could be that the authorities are urging her to go on state television and condemn her brother, or it could be that they are signaling to Hossein Farsi that he must halt his activism or even return to Iran and face new charges to secure her release.
The NCRI reports that the number of similar cases is growing practically every day and that the regime’s strategy is narrowly focused on silencing the voices that are most likely to lead the public in new uprisings along the lines of the nationwide demonstrations that sprang up at the beginning of 2018 and in November 2019.
The authorities’ recent focus on the MEK is a sign of the prospects for a new, democratic revolution. But it should also be cause for tremendous international concern for the individuals caught up in the regime’s crackdown.
That regime has gone to extraordinary lengths in its attempt to stamp out the MEK in the past. If Western governments, human rights groups, and the United Nations fail to pay close attention to cases like that of Marzieh Farsi, they may be inviting thousands of other such cases, with potentially fatal consequences for them all.