International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran highlights cases of physicist with cancer and blogger on hunger strike.
Activists have raised concerns about the health of two prisoners held in Iran on political grounds – an award-winning physicist with cancer and a blogger who has been on hunger strike for nearly a month.
In an episode that highlights Iranian authorities’ denial of crucial medical care to prisoners of conscience, physicist Omid Kokabee, 34, had surgery on Wednesday to remove his right kidney, taken out after repeated warnings about his condition were ignored during five years of his imprisonment.
In a separate case, Hossein Ronaghi, a 30-year-old blogger with one functioning kidney, is believed to be in a critical condition as he continues to refuse food and water in protest at his imprisonment.
Kokabee and Ronaghi are among hundreds of prisoners held in Iranian jails on political grounds or because of their beliefs or civil activities.
Kokabee, a laser physicist with University of Texas, was arrested in Tehran in 2011 after, activists say, he refused to collaborate with Iranian authorities on military projects. More than 30 Nobel physics laureates have called for his release; in 2014, the American Physical Society awarded him the Andrei Sakharov Prize for “his courage in refusing to use his physics knowledge to work on projects that he deemed harmful to humanity”.
Ronaghi was returned to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison in January to resume a 13-year sentencefor insulting Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on his blog.
The victory of the moderate Hassan Rouhani in 2013’s presidential election raised hopes for an improvement in the situation of prisoners of conscience, but despite a small number of high-profile releases, human rights are still routinely flouted and executions are at a record high.
“Denying a prisoner necessary medical care is both cruel and unlawful,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Iranian authorities should ensure that Kokabee will have access to adequate medical care, which in his case is likely to be outside prison.”
“Iran has a dismal record of providing prisoners, especially those convicted of politically motivated charges, access to necessary medical treatment,” she said.
“Judicial and intelligence authorities should immediately stop mistreating prisoners by denying them adequate access to medical care.”
Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI), echoed Whitson by saying that “the continued endangerment of Kokabee’s life is tantamount to torture”.
According to Kokabee’s lawyer, Saeed Khalili, he has passed kidney stones and suffered internal bleeding multiple times during his five years and three months in prison. A unnamed source familiar with Kokabee’s case told the ICHRI that the advanced state of his cancer could have been prevented if he had been given access to medical treatment earlier.
“If he had been transferred out of the prison to receive a routine sonography in November 2011, when he first experienced bleeding and pain caused by kidney stones, [the issue] would have been noticed,” the source is quoted as saying by ICHRI. “Even a simple sonography would show a tumour. Omid had repeatedly gone to the prison infirmary, complaining of kidney and stomach pain.”
Other political prisoners in poor health include the human rights activist Narges Mohammadi, one of at least 18 female prisoners of conscience currently held in Iran.
Mohammadi,winner of the 2009 Alexander Langer award for her human rights activities, has developed an undiagnosed epilepsy-like disease while in prison that causes her to temporarily lose control of her muscles. Other prisoners include the student activist Bahareh Hedayat, the artist Atena Farghadani – sentenced to 12 years – and the anti-death penalty activist Atena Daemi, who was sentenced to 14 years.
Ronaghi’s mother, Zoleikha Mousavi, who visited him in jail earlier this month, told the ICHRI her son’s situation is dangerous. “Hossein looked very thin,” she is quoted as saying. “His skin looked yellow and pale. I’m terrified that something might happen to him.”
“But Hossein says he won’t stop [his hunger strike] until his situation changes,” she added. “If anything happens to my son, officials will be held accountable.”