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Jailed Iranian Activist Begins Hunger Strike to Demand Release of Political Prisoners Amid Country’s Coronavirus Crisis

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Jailed Iranian human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh has announced she is going on a hunger strike to demand the release of political prisoners in Iran, a move taken amid fears that inmates’ safety could be jeopardized by the coronavirus outbreak overwhelming the country’s health system.

“The same military and intelligence agencies that compromise the safety of this nation with their antagonistic policies are insisting on keeping the political prisoners in prisons until the horrors of this health crisis spread to their lives and impact their families, as well,” Sotoudeh wrote in a March 16 statement from Evin Prison.

The notorious Tehran-based facility has been the primary detention site for political prisoners in Iran since 1972. Sotoudeh was incarcerated there in the spring of 2018 after authorities sentenced her in absentia to five years in jail for her work as a women’s rights and human rights attorney.

A few months later, authorities handed her an additional seven charges, amounting to a total of 33 years in prison and 148 lashes. The heaviest of these sentences was 12 years for “promoting immorality and indecency”, Sotoudeh wrote in an opinion piece published in TIME on International Women’s Day.

Sotoudeh was among the activists featured in Jeff Kaufman’s short documentary on the 40-year struggle for women’s rights in Iran. The film appeared alongside her article in TIME on March 6.

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Iran has recorded almost 1,000 deaths from COVID-19, among more than 16,000 confirmed cases. Already the highest death toll outside China and Italy, the World Health Organization says the actual figure could be five times higher, due to testing being restricted to severe cases.

Experts have roundly criticized the Islamic Republic’s leadership for its initial mismanagement of the crisis.

“The actions taken so far prove that the police and the security forces have been the sole decision-makers in this situation,” Sotoudeh wrote in the statement. “It was their policies that led the country into deep dark trouble and confusion.”

In a bid to prevent the disease from spreading in prison wards that inmates have described as overcrowded, bedbug-ridden and chaotic, Iran announced on Thursday that it had temporarily released about 85,000 people from jail. According to a judiciary spokesperson, about half of those prisoners were “security-related” —a term Iranian authorities use to refer to political detainees.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab confirmed Thursday that British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliff, whose family had suspected had contracted the coronavirus, was among those Iran had temporarily released.

But Sotoudeh, and thousands of other political detainees, still remain confined in facilities as the activist says Iranian leaders have a “national obligation” to evacuate. “Since none of my legal requests and judicial correspondence regarding the release of political prisoners have been answered, as the last option, I am going on hunger strike to once again demand their release,” she wrote.

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