A lawyer for a detained Iranian social media activist says he has died in a notorious prison in what one rights group described as a brutal killing by fellow inmates charged with drug and murder offenses.
In a Tuesday phone interview with VOA Persian from his base in Tehran, lawyer Mohammad Hadi Erfanian-Kaseb said the body of his client, Alireza Shir-Mohammad-Ali, had been identified by the man’s mother following Monday’s incident at the Greater Tehran Penitentiary. “We must wait until medical authorities examine his body before considering further legal steps,” Erfanian-Kaseb said, declining to provide further details of what happened.
The New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran quoted a source “with detailed knowledge of the circumstances of Shir-Mohammad-Ali’s death” as saying two male inmates confronted the activist and stabbed him multiple times with a sharp object. The CHRI source said one of the assailants was on death row for murder while the other was jailed for drug-related offenses.
CHRI said Iranian authorities arrested Shir-Mohammad-Ali in July 2018 and charged him with crimes including “insulting the sacred,” “insulting” Iran’s supreme leader and “propaganda against the state.” It said he was sentenced to eight years in prison in February and was awaiting the result of his appeal before his death.
CHRI said it also spoke to Erfanian-Kaseb on Tuesday and cited the lawyer as saying Shir-Mohammad-Ali had been jailed because of content posted by the activist on the Telegram messaging app.
Iranian rights activists previously had reported that Shir-Mohammad-Ali and fellow detained activist Barzan Mohammadi started a more than month-long hunger strike at the Greater Tehran Penitentiary on March 14. The rights activists had published what they said was a letter written by the two detainees, in which the men complained of poor conditions at the prison and threats to their personal safety.
“The prison conditions are unacceptable and the holding of political prisoners like Shir-Mohammad-Ali and Gonabadi Dervishes alongside common criminals is a matter of concern,” Erfanian-Kaseb told VOA Persian. He added that Shir-Mohammad-Ali and Mohammadi had ended their hunger strike after being promised that they would be transferred from the prison.
Iran imprisoned male members of its Dervish religious minority at the Greater Tehran Penitentiary after detaining them in February 2018 during anti-government street protests by Dervishes in Tehran. CHRI said the prison was built in 2015 primarily for holding suspects and inmates convicted of drug-related offenses, but the Iranian judiciary also has used it to “unlawfully” incarcerate activists and dissidents.
Article 69 of the regulations of Iran’s State Prisons Organization says prison inmates are supposed to be housed based on the type and duration of their alleged offense, their character and education level, among other criteria.
“A 21-year-old-person has lost his life in prison for charges that should not even be on the book,” Human Rights Watch Iran researcher Tara Sepehri Far wrote in a Tuesday email to VOA Persian, referring to Shir-Mohammad-Ali. Rather than protect the rights of political prisoners, she said Iranian authorities instead appear to have used the “tactic” of detaining them alongside violent offenders as a way to increase pressure on them.
“There is an urgent need for an investigation at highest judicial level focused on identifying if authorities’ lack of oversight or negligence has played a role in this tragedy,” Sepehri Far said.
There was no comment on Shir-Mohammad-Ali’s death in Iranian state media on Tuesday.