There has been a recent rash of ostensible “natural” deaths and “suicides” in Iranian prisons. It is probably not a stretch to classify them as homicides — executions without trials.
Several weeks ago, according to Iranian state-owned media outlets, a 22-year-old man who had been arrested during the widespread anti-regime protests died in police custody.
Not much later, the authorities announced that an arrested street peddler killed himself in prison. Then came a 23-year-old student. According to the Iranian regime, he took his own life in Evin Prison, the most notorious jail in Iran.
And most recently, an Iranian-Canadian environmentalist named Kavous Seyed-Emami, the managing director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, which seeks to protect Iran’s rare animals (and a U.S.-trained scholar in sociology) was reported by Iranian authorities to have done so as well. He had been arrested on charges of spying and, the Iranians said, his feelings of guilt had led him to kill himself.
“He was one of the defendants in a spying case and unfortunately he committed suicide in prison since he knew that many had made confessions against him and because of his own confessions,” Tehran’s prosecutor Abbas Jafari-Dolatabadi told the semi-official ILNA news agency.
The recent death recalled that of another Iranian-Canadian, a photojournalist who, in 2003, was also in Evin prison and died in custody after allegedly being tortured and beaten.
The Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), a non-profit group based in New York, said at least nine other staff members and executives of Mr. Seyed-Emami’s organization had been arrested on the same day as he was.
Dozens of dual nationals remain in jail in Iran, mostly on spying charges.
Iran’s judiciary has also announced in recent weeks the suicides of two other Iranians who were among those arrested during the nationwide anti-government protests.
No one in Iran or beyond seems to believe that the deaths in prison were for the reasons the authorities claim. Family members of these victims insist that their imprisoned relatives showed no inclination to take their own lives. No evidence of causes of death has been offered survivors, and there is ample opportunity for guards or others to murder prisoners.
The regime’s constitution, moreover, does not allow detainees to have access to a lawyer during the initial phase of questioning, providing an opportunity to obtain confessions by any means. Torture has been described by detainees who were later released, and has been documented by a human rights group.
And so, even if the authorities do not physically kill some of the prisoners, the torture inflicted on them could have led to their deaths.
The Iranian regime has, at least in its estimation, good reason to kill prisoners, especially those charged, as many are, with spying. Deaths of such men and women, whether or not they are actually guilty of anything, send a message to Iranian civilians, intimidating them to not oppose the regime, which has been sporadically demonstrated against by young Iranians.
And, in cases where torture has been used to obtain confessions to crimes, the deaths of those who were subjected to the cruelty make it impossible for the victims to ever testify to their mistreatment.
Civilized nations either eschew the death penalty altogether or apply it with great restraint, and only after fair trials and appeals have run their courses. Last year in the U.S., with more than 3 million people, there were 23 executions. Since its founding as a state, Israel has executed only one person, Adolf Eichmann — and an Israeli military court recently declined to sentence to death the cold-blooded murderer of three members of the Salomon family of Halamish on a Shabbos night this past summer, opting instead to send the terrorist to prison for life.
But Iran today is not among civilized nations. It not only threatens the U.S. and Israel, but also arms bad actors and foments death and destruction in places like Yemen and Syria.
And, it seems clear, it has no compunctions about killing people, even its own citizens, with impunity.
The larger threat Iran poses to other nations, and its nuclear ambitions are hardly abandoned.
At the same time, world powers and the United Nations Human Rights Council should start the process of curbing the Iranian mullahcracy’s ambitions by holding it accountable for the brazen murders of defenseless people it has imprisoned.