Jailed ‘health advocates’ in Iran wanted to sue Supreme Leader over Covid


Two Iranian lawyers and a civil rights activist were part of a group organizing a legal challenge against Iran’s top leader and the government for their disastrous handling of the pandemic.

But before they could even file a complaint, they were arrested and jailed.

Now known on Iranian social media as “health advocates,” their case has attracted wide attention, even though their trial in Tehran is not open to the public.

“We were still discussing the complaint and what to do when 15 justice intelligence officers violently broke into the office and arrested us,” civil rights activist Mehdi Mahmoudian said. , during a telephone interview from Evin high security prison in Tehran, where he is being held with his co-defendants, lawyers Mostafa Nili and Arash Kaykhosravi.

“We have been held in solitary confinement without access to lawyers, telephones or family visits for almost a month in an illegal detention wing of Evin which belongs to the justice system,” he said. added. Mr Mahmoudian said he and others had previously received phone calls from intelligence agents asking them to cancel the meeting, an indication that they were under surveillance.

Mr Mahmoudian was among a group of nine Iranian lawyers and civil rights activists who gathered at an office in Tehran one afternoon in August to discuss a draft complaint they were planning to bring. against the highest officials of the country. He said they planned to sue Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the government for mismanaging the pandemic and obstructing vaccine deployment with a politically motivated ban by Mr. Khamenei on importing state-made vaccines. United and Great Britain.

Hadi Ghaemi, director of the Independent Center for Human Rights in Iran, a New York-based rights group, said the planned trial was an example of a movement taking shape across Iran to demand civil servants and justice accounts for a series of offenses. , the murder of protesters, the torture of political prisoners and the deaths attributable to delays in the delivery of Covid vaccines.

“These lawyers were truly the voice of a company that was outraged by the Covid situation and they wanted to put that on the map by filing this lawsuit,” he said.

Since the start of the pandemic, Iran has treated independent disclosures of information about it as a crime and a matter of national security. In the first few months, for example, authorities banned healthcare workers and doctors from discussing the actual number of hospitalizations and deaths.

Health ministry officials involved in pandemic policies have publicly stated that they are regularly questioned by intelligence officers.

Iran had already been ravaged by the coronavirus at the time of the meeting in August, and the country was in the midst of an intense new wave of epidemics and deaths. The group of lawyers and activists debated whether to name the supreme leader in their trial, according to Mahmoudian.

Some of those in attendance were in favor of the idea because Ayatollah Khamenei had issued the vaccine ban, delaying Iran’s mass inoculation by several months. But others opposed it, arguing it would make the case too sensitive.

Mr. Mahmoudian and the two lawyers have been held for four months in the infamous Evin Prison in Tehran, the country’s central site for the detention and torture of political prisoners. Branches of the intelligence services, from the judiciary to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, control their own wings in Evin, where prisoners are held in solitary confinement. He managed to escape prison restrictions and speak to a reporter over the phone a week ago.

Credit…Courtesy of Mehdi Mahmoudian’s family

The three men are accused of anti-state propaganda and disturbing public order in a trial that opened in late October before the Tehran Revolutionary Court, a special tribunal for political affairs and political prisoners. They are also accused of forming and belonging to an enemy organization – a reference to a human rights group they created called the “Citizens Rights Protection Association”. If found guilty, they each face up to 10 years in prison.

A statement released last week by a group of international rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and PEN America, called for their immediate release and called on the United Nations to raise their case with the Iranian government.

“They are completely innocent,” said Saeed Dehghan, an Iranian human rights lawyer who knows the detainees and has worked with them on other cases.

The Iranian UN mission did not respond to questions about the three prisoners.

During the raid, intelligence agents demanded that all nine people present – seven lawyers and two activists – sign a statement pledging to drop the charges. Some agreed and were allowed to leave.

Five were arrested but two were released on bail.

Mr Mahmoudian is currently serving a four-year prison sentence in connection with an earlier charge that was stayed until his arrest in August: he asked the public to light a candle in memory of the Ukrainian plane Airlines shot down by Revolutionary Guards in January. 2020. Iran said the missile fire that destroyed the plane, killing 176 people, was a mistake.

In the months following the raid, Iran made progress in its vaccination campaign. As of this week, Iran reports that 50 million of its 85 million people have received two doses of the vaccine, according to official media.

After the current government took office in August and the Conservatives consolidated their power, vaccine imports, availability and mass inoculation improved dramatically.

But with the Omicron variant rapidly spreading across the world, Iranian health officials are encouraging the public to receive booster shots to increase their defenses against the new strain. And in that sense, Iran could be late again: only around 2 million people have so far received a recall, according to the health ministry.

Many Iranians have questioned whether senior officials deliberately suspended the importation of vaccines during the tenure of former President Hassan Rouhani due to internal political struggles between his more centrist government and the conservative camp within the ruling system, who is aligned with Mr. Khamenei, the most senior official. authority in the country.

Vaccines started pouring in after Tory President Ebrahim Raisi, a close ally of the Supreme Leader, took power in August, making him a more effective administrator.

For its part, the government blamed the delays in vaccine imports and other pandemic-related issues on sanctions and lobbied for the billions of dollars in oil revenues that have been frozen under the released US sanctions. to pay for vaccines via Covax. initiative.

But the crackdown on civil liberties under Mr. Raisi, who has a disastrous record of human rights violations, has intensified, according to rights groups and lawyers. The government faces almost weekly protests across the country over a range of grievances, from farmers angry over mismanagement of water resources to a teachers’ union on strike over wages. He answered with an iron fist.

The trial of the trio of “health advocates” has struck a chord with many activists, ordinary Iranians and even international organizations who ask: if lawyers cannot seek justice in the Islamic Republic within the framework of the constitution, so who can?

In November, more than 500 human rights defenders and activists signed a petition demanding the release of the three jailed men and said their ongoing detention violated guarantees of a fair trial under Iran’s constitution.

In October, the three men arrested in August published an open letter from prison declaring their intention to prosecute Mr. Khamenei and the former president, Mr. Rouhani as well as the former health minister and members of the task force of the countries on coronaviruses.

“We created our organization with the intention that if a person’s rights are violated, we could step in and react,” said Mahmoudian. “But right now, they don’t even allow any of us to defend ourselves in court.”

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