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Crammed in filthy cells, political prisoners fear infection

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AP Cairo
Reza Khandan got the word from friends locked away in Iran's most feared prison, Evin. A prisoner and a guard in their cell block had been removed because they were suspected of having coronavirus, and two guards in the women's ward had shown symptoms.
It was frightening news. Khandan's wife, Nasrin Sotoudeh, one of Iran's most prominent human rights lawyers, is imprisoned in that ward in close quarters with 20 other women. Only days earlier, the 56-year-old Sotoudeh known for defending activists, opposition politicians and women prosecuted for removing their headscarves had held a five-day hunger strike demanding prisoners be released to protect them from the virus.
The virus has entered the jail, but we don't know the extent of it, Khandan, who had until recently been imprisoned in Evin as well, told The Associated Press by phone from Tehran.
"It will be impossible to control," Khandan warned.
Tens of thousands of political prisoners are jailed in Iran, Syria and other countries around the Middle East, punished for anything from advocating for democracy and promoting women's or workers' rights to holding Islamist views, protesting or simply criticizing autocratic leaders on Facebook or YouTube.
Alarm is growing over the danger the coronavirus pandemic poses to prisoners: if one guard, visitor or new inmate introduces the infection, the virus could race rampant through a captive population unable to protect itself.
Conditions are prime for the disease to spread rapidly. Inmates are often packed by the dozens into dirty cells with no access to hygiene or medical care. Torture, poor nutrition and other abuses leave prisoners weaker and more vulnerable.
So far, Iran, which faces the Mideast's biggest outbreak with thousands infected and hundreds dead, has not confirmed any coronavirus cases in its prisons. But Khandan's is one of several reports of cases that have emerged from Iranian facilities. Egypt and Syria, which have large numbers of political detainees, also have not reported any cases within prisons.
The concern over prisons is worldwide. Multiple countries including Iran have released some inmates to reduce crowding. Others say they are sterilizing cells, halting family visits or increasing monitoring of guards and staff. Riots have broken out in prisons in several countries among inmates fearful not enough is being done.
In authoritarian nations, ensuring protections for detainees is even more difficult. Activists, rights organizations and aid groups have grown bolder in pressing governments in the area to take action. Amnesty International called on Iran to free more prisoners, particularly rights defenders and peaceful protesters. They should not be in detention in the first place, it said.
Egypt last week briefly detained four women including three relatives of a prominent jailed activist who called for prisoner releases. Mohsen Bahnasi, an Egyptian lawyer who also called for prisoner releases, was arrested from his home, though it was not clear why, according to the Arab Network for Human Rights Information.
The International Committee of the Red Cross one of the few organizations that sometimes gets access to prisons in the region is stepping up efforts to help. We must act now to try to prevent it from entering places of detention. Trying to contain it after the fact will be almost impossible, said Fabrizio Carboni, the ICRC's Near and Middle East regional director.
He said the ICRC has already begun distributing soap, disinfectant and protective equipment at prisons in several places in the Mideast. It has requested permission from Syria to do the same in its facilities and is hopeful it will get access, he said.
Syria is the darkest black hole in the region. In the long civil war, tens of thousands of activists, protesters and others have been swallowed with hardly a trace into prisons run by President Bashar Assad's government.

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First Published: Mar 31 2020 | 5:22 PM IST

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