Coronavirus 'inching closer' to inmates at Iranian prison
On Wednesday, the Iranian judiciary, "in view of the current conditions", delivered a directive allowing "eligible" prisoners to leave Evin Prison in Tehran to stay with their families until 2 April 2020.
Eligible prisoners, it stated, included male and female prisoners over the age of 70 and 60 years respectively.
However, this did not include "security prisoners" of the same ages with "sentences longer than five years".
With a death toll of 237 as of Monday, Iran is one of the worst hit countries, after China and Italy. Governments are scrambling to respond to the outbreak with countries across the Middle East cancelling public gatherings, restricting attendances at sporting events and closing schools.
Many of Iran's neighbours have imposed restrictions on travel to and from the Islamic Republic.
Sherry Izadi, wife of Iranian-British engineer Anoosheh Ashoori, who is held at Evin under suspicion of espionage told The New Arab, "If there is a risk of virus, does it discriminate according to your age?"
|If there is a risk of virus, does it discriminate according to your age?|
But she said any hopes for her husband's temporary release had been dashed because most security prisoners serve 10 year sentences, which meant "anyone accused of spying is automatically disqualified".
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In response to concerns of dual national political prisoners at Evin Prison, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office has said, "We are urgently seeking information from the Iranian authorities on reports that coronavirus is spreading in Evin prison, including to British-Iranian dual nationals.
"We call on the Iranian government to immediately allow health professionals into Evin prison to assess the situation of British-Iranian dual nationals there."
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a dual national also held on espionage charges, has expressed concern that she may have caught the virus.
In a statement issued by the Free Nazanin Campaign, the 42-year-old said, "I am not good. I feel very bad in fact. It is a strange cold. Not like usual. I know the kinds of cold I normally have, how my body reacts. This is different. I am just as bad as I was. I often get better after three days. But with this there is no improvement. I haven’t got one big better."
Zaghari-Ratcliffe said she has experienced "a sore throat for days". She added: "Really bad. It is now more than five days – with a severe sore throat that is not going away.
"At the beginning I had a runny nose and a cough. Now I have this continual cold sweat. I have a temperature, though not all the time. The past couple of days I have been shivering every night. I have also had nausea – feeling like I am about to vomit, though I do not.
"I have difficulty breathing and pain in my muscles, and fatigue. I do not pant, but I am finding it hard to breathe. And I am just very, very tired. I have real tiredness and a heavy head. I am too tired to do anything.
"For a long time this has not felt like a normal cold. These symptoms have lasted almost a week. I know I need to get medicine to get better. This does not go magically."
|We call on the Iranian government to immediately allow health professionals into Evin prison to assess the situation of British-Iranian dual nationals there|
Other dual nationality prisoners being held at Evin Prison include Aras Amiri, Niloufar Bayani, Kamran Ghaderi and Kamal Foroughi.
Sherry Izadi, who spoke to her husband on Saturday, said prisoners are currently keeping their wards sanitised with bleach.
She told The New Arab, "I spoke to my husband today about 4pm. He said there are still no health measures into place at the prison, no medics available, no hand sanitisers, not even a proper doctor. They don't even have access to simple medicine like paracetamol.
"The only thing they've done this morning is give each person a low quality mask and a pair of disposable gloves."
Izadi said her husband first became concerned about coronavirus at the prison after a cellmate informed him of an altercation he witnessed outside Tehran’s Talahani Hospital. It was between the driver of a prisoners' bus and a guard who was concerned about being handcuffed to an inmate he suspected was carrying the disease.
She said Ashoori’s cellmate later told him that the handcuffed prisoner suspected of the disease had died.
As a result, she said Ashoori and other inmates who are in ward seven at Evin Prison refused to be moved to ward four where there are claimed to be three suspect cases of coronavirus.
"Everyone had initially packed up to move to ward seven, but when my husband’s cellmate told them that the prisoner who had died was from ward four, they decided to resist the transfer."
Last month, the Iran Metropolitan News Agency reported the death of a 44-year-old prisoner said to have died from coronavirus-like symptoms. Investigations into the cause of death continue.
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In the meantime, Izadi said prison authorities have put the transfer of inmates from ward four to seven on hold. But she added that the FCO must act.
"They must demand the Iranian government temporarily sends prisoners home at least until the danger has passed. The possibility of an outbreak is very strong, especially with prison guards handling food as they freely move between wards. It’s like a catastrophe waiting to happen.
"And if anything happens to these innocent dual nationals who are in prison there, including my husband, their blood is on the hands of the Iranian government, and the British government equally.
"Right now, I cannot understand why they would refuse a simple gesture to keep prisoners safe from this virus by allowing them to stay with their families. We're not asking for their freedom, we are asking for humanitarian concern," she added.
"Two months ago, after the assassination of Soleimani, we heard a couple of guards with trigger happy tendencies expressing their anger at dual nationals who they considered to be traitors.
"That particular period, for a week or 15 days, was extremely difficult mentally. I'm just glad it's over. But we now have coronavirus, so we have another period of fear and trepidation to look forward to."
Anu Shukla is a freelance journalist based in London
Follow her on Twitter: @AnuShuklaWrites