Reporters Without Border | Jan. 15, 2022
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is asking the UN to set up an independent international commission of enquiry into the death of Baktash Abtin, an Iranian journalist and writer who died on 8 January as a result of not being treated when he caught Covid-19 in Tehran’s Evin prison.
A member of the Iranian Writers’ Association, Baktash Abtin was transferred too late to hospital by the Iranian authorities although prison officials had warned them that his condition was worsening dramatically, his lawyer told RSF.
“Deprivation of medical care is deliberately used by the Iranian authorities as a way to eliminate imprisoned dissidents,” said Reza Moini, the head of RSF’s Iran-Afghanistan desk. “We urge the UN rapporteurs on the human rights situation in Iran, on extrajudicial executions and on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment to shed all possible light on Baktash Abtin’s death. It is time to put a stop to this kind of criminal behaviour, which amounts to state murder.”
Depriving detainees of medical attention violates the ban on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. It violates the laws that the Iranian authorities themselves have undertaken to respect, the rules that they have decreed, as well as international norms established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iran signed.
Authorities ignored warnings
Abtin’s lawyer, Naser Zarafshan, who is also a member of the Iranian Writers’ Association, warned prison officials on 27 November that Abtin’s condition was worsening, that he had a fever and was coughing and that his entire body was aching. But it wasn’t until 5 December that he was transferred to Tehran’s Taleghani hospital and another three days went by before his family was informed.
“For six days, neither the family nor friends of this journalist, who was chained to his bed, knew what he really had,” Zarafshan told RSF. “The guards even refused to let his family bring him a fruit juice.” By the time of his transfer to Taleghani hospital he had developed a severe form of Covid-19 and more than 78% of his lungs were infected. “It was too late,” Zarafshan added.
Abtin’s state of health had long been a source of concern. He suffered a previous bout of Covid-19 in April 2021, when the authorities also delayed treatment. Several doctors called for his release at the time, saying his state of health was incompatible with continued detention, but their appeal went unanswered.
Concern about other imprisoned journalists
The fate of other ailing imprisoned journalists is a source of great concern. One of the world’s oldest imprisoned journalists, Kayvan Samimi Behbahani, the 73-year-old editor of the monthly Iran Farda, continues to be detained although doctors have certified that his condition is incompatible with imprisonment. And his situation could quickly worsen following the publication of a letter in which he blames the Iranian judicial authorities for Abtin’s death. He could be transferred to another prison, putting his life in danger.
Many other journalists who are members of the Iranian Writers’ Association are also in prison. They include Reza Khandan Mahabadi, Kayvan Bagen and Khosro Sadeghi Borjeni. Although it is Iran’s oldest civil society organisation, the association’s activities have been banned under both the Shah and the Islamic Revolution. Two of its representatives, the writers and journalists Mohamad Makhtari and Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh, were murdered in 1998.
Died in prison
Abtin is far from being the first Iranian journalist to die in detention. Zahra Kazemi, a 54-year-old photographer with Iranian and Canadian dual nationality, died on 10 July 2003 after being tortured while held. The blogger Omidreza Mirsayafi died in detention in unclear circumstances six weeks after his arrest in February 2009. Iran-e-Farda editor Hoda Saber, 52, died of a heart attack in June 2011 after being detained since the previous August. The blogger Sattar Beheshti died while being held by Iran’s cyber-police, the FTA, in November 2012. None of the perpetrators and instigators of these crimes has been brought to justice.
The Islamic Republic of Iran ranks 174th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index.