Middle East


Another Jailed Activist Dies

A rally of about 2,000 people protest Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to the United Nations World Summit in 2005. The rally was organized by the New York Committee against Ahmadinejad, and included supporters of the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran. (Photo: Nicholas Roberts / AFP-Getty Images)

Sept. 6 marked another failure of the Islamic Republic of Iran in complying with basic human rights standards. Valiollah Feyz Mahdavi, a political prisoner in Iran's Rajaee Shahr prison (also known as Gohardasht prison), died in Tehran's Shariati hospital after undertaking an estimated 11-day hunger strike.

Mahdavi, 26, was arrested by Intelligence Ministry agents in the autumn of 2001 on charges of undermining national security and attempting to join the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), which is based in Iraq. The organization is known as the most prominent armed opposition to Tehran's regime, and is considered a terrorist group by the United States.

After the arrest, Iranian judiciary and intelligence sources announced that Mahdavi stood accused of planning terrorist bombing in the country, and that he was arrested on the Iraq-Iran border while carrying explosives. The authenticity of the allegations remains unclear.

Iran's Revolutionary Court sentenced Mahdavi, who had spent the last five years in political prisons, to the death penalty. The verdict was officially confirmed by the Supreme Court in March despite calls from human rights defenders asking for reconsideration and clarification of the trial's procedure.

One of Mahdavi's fellow inmates, Hojjat Zamani, was executed on Feb. 7 on charges of being a member of PMOI, in addition to setting off a bomb in the Revolutionary Court building in 1998 that took three lives.

According to the judiciary officials, three days prior to his passing away Mahdavi had attempted to commit suicide in prison's bathroom, which led to his transfer to the hospital where he eventually died. However, there are unconfirmed reports from some sources inside Rajaee Shahr that fellow inmates were under pressure from prison authorities to confirm the alleged suicide attempt and to deny Mahdavi's reported hunger strike.

"Valiollah Feyz Mahdavi had undergone a hunger strike since Aug. 25 to demand that he be allowed to meet with his lawyers in person and also to protest the refusal of judiciary authorities to transfer him from Rajaee Shahr [criminal] prison to Evin [political] prison," said one of his lawyers, Mohammad Sharif. "Even if the suicide allegation is authentic — which I strongly suspect — the judiciary and prison officials are responsible for that."

Days before Mahdavi's death, unconfirmed reports from fellow inmates and relatives had expressed concern, emphasizing that after more than a week of a hunger strike, his general condition had turned critical. Some reports even indicated a possible heart attack.

Another lawyer on Mahdavi's case, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, also confirmed the reported prison attempts to substantiate the alleged suicide through obtaining false confessions, and believes the cause of death to be a lack of consideration and proper health care from the authorities.

In a letter written some months ago by Mahdavi from the prison, he mentioned the condition under which he was spending his imprisonment:

"[after the arrest] they kept me in solitary confinement for 546 days, during which time I was interrogated and subjected to severe physical and psychological torture. I was kept in a little, dimly-lit cell and when moved for any purpose I was shackled, cuffed and blindfolded."

"These were the hardest days of my life. On a number of occasions they woke me up in middle of the night, took me outside, and told me, "say your last wish." Then one of them would fire a shot. Thinking I was hit, I would spend a few minutes in a state of shock before being led back to my cell."

"After this hellish period, they arranged a trial for me. I was sentenced to death in a summary court presided over by a judge named Haddad and held at the 26th branch of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran. At my sham trial I rejected all the charges and denounced the illegitimacy of the whole procedure, where I had no legal representation and no jury was present."

Human rights defenders both inside and outside Iran had repeatedly urged Iranian authorities to clarify the legal process for trials, and also to improve the imprisonment condition of Mahdavi, Hojjat Zamani, and several other political prisoners — regardless of the nature of political organization to which they were connected.

Legal observers believe that although PMOI is widely considered an outcast opposition organization accused of many armed assaults in Iran, nevertheless according to international law the legal right to a fair trial and humane prison conditions takes precedence over any other priority.

Second Fatality in Six Weeks

Mahdavi's death marks the second fatal incident among Iranian political prisoners in less than six weeks. On July 31, Akbar Mohammadi, a prominent student movement activist who was serving the second half of his conviction died in Evin prison under similar conditions. Mohammadi, 36, who had spent almost half a decade of his youth in Evin on charges involving activities against the Islamic Republic, suspiciously passed away after an 11-day hunger strike to protest the condition under which he was being held. The cause of Mohammadi's death still remains unclear. He was reportedly subject to ill-treatment in the prison and his family's request, as well as lawyer's efforts to carry out an independent examination of the body in order to determine the cause of death, was denied by Iranian authorities.

"The Iranian government should urgently appoint an independent commission of Iranian lawyers and doctors to investigate the recent deaths of prisoners under suspicious circumstances," Human Rights Watch said in a statement released on Sept. 7. "The commission also needs to examine the conditions of prisoners held for their political beliefs."

"Iranian prison officials have a track record of giving false information about the fate of political prisoners," said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. "After two deaths in just a few weeks, there must be accountability for what is going on inside Iran's prisons."

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