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UN experts urge Iran to release human rights defenders from prison during COVID-19

16 September 2020

GENEVA (16 September 2020) – UN experts* today called on Iran to temporarily release human rights defenders from prison to protect them from the spread of COVID-19 in prisons.

“Iranian human rights defenders in prison are at high risk of contracting COVID-19 because the Government has failed to take effective action to protect their health and integrity, and grant them temporary release, despite its orders to furlough over 100,000 prisoners,” said Mary Lawlor, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.

Lawlor added that “They should not be imprisoned in the first place, and so I urge the Government to grant them release before their inaction results in tragic consequences.”

Five months have passed since UN experts issued an appeal for their release at the same time the Government announced its temporary release schemes to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, allowing for the release of some 120,000 prisoners.

Lawlor said she had received a number of reports of deteriorating health and well-being of imprisoned human rights defenders who are at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19.

“The refusal of the authorities in Iran to grant human rights defenders temporary release during a pandemic is symptomatic of a complete disregard for fundamental human rights, and for the safety and well-being of those imprisoned for their human rights work,” said Javaid Rehman, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Nasrin Sotoudeh, a lawyer and defender of women’s rights, for example, was detained in June 2018 and was given seven prison sentences totaling 33 years related to her work including challenging veiling laws and the death penalty imposed on minors. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she has gone on hunger strike twice (and been admitted for medical attention once) to protest the continued detention of all human rights defenders and political prisoners, and inadequate prison medical care.

“The fact that human rights defenders are repeatedly resorting to hunger strikes to protest their continued detention testifies to the gravity of the situation, and the conditions they are being forced to endure,” said Lawlor.

Among the many human rights defenders who have been denied furlough are Arash Sadeghi, who has  a rare form of bone cancer, and women’s and child’s rights defender Atena Daemi, for whom doctors recommended hospitalization for a serious neurological condition. Teacher and labour rights defender Esmail Abdi was released on furlough in March but was taken back to prison one month later. Fellow labour rights defender Jafar Azimzadeh qualified for release but had his request denied and new charges were brought against him.

“Not only have human rights defenders been denied furlough, they have also been subjected to additional charges whilst in prison, placed in solitary confinement, and their families have been targeted by the authorities,” said Lawlor.

The expert’s call has been endorsed by: Javaid Rehman, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Tlaleng Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, Working Group on Arbitrary Detention:Ms. Leigh Toomey (Chair-Rapporteur),  Ms. Elina Steinerte (Vice-Chair), Mr. José Guevara Bermúdez, Mr. Seong-Phil Hong,  Mr. Sètondji Adjovi, Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.


Ms Mary Lawlor, (Ireland) is the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. She is currently an Adjunct Professor of Business and Human Rights in Trinity College Dublin. She was the founder of Front Line Defenders - the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. As Executive Director from 2001-2016, she represented Front Line Defenders and had a key role in its development. Ms. Lawlor was the Director of the Irish Section of Amnesty International from 1988 to 2000, became a Board member in 1975 and was elected Chair from 1983 to 1987.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are notUN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, country page: Iran

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