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Iran: Behind Rouhani’s Smile, Reza Shahabi Tortured In Prison

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Originally published at Gatestone Institute.

Since the Islamic Republic of Iran has continuously violated labor laws, workers have been fighting for unions, fair wages and safe working conditions inside the country. As a result, a number of labor activists have been arrested, tortured and given long prison sentences on charges of acting “against the regime and national security.”

Mr. Reza Shahabi was a city bus driver when, along with many of his colleagues, he formed a labor rights group for The Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company. He was arrested in 2010 and subsequently sentenced to six years imprisonment by the Islamic Revolutionary Court of Tehran—five years for “gathering and colluding against state security,” and one year for “spreading propaganda against the system.”

He was initially kept in the most feared section of Evin prison — Ward 209 — where prisoners are systematically tortured until they confess to the arbitrary and vague charges chosen by the authorities. According to Mr. Shahabi’s family and many human rights groups; Mr. Shahabi now therefore suffers from debilitating chronic pain due to damaged discs in his neck and upper back and is experiencing numbness in his left leg.

Although he was approved for spinal surgery by prison authorities in May 2012 thanks to an international outcry from various human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, the Campaign to Free Political Prisoners in Iran [CFPPI], and the International Federation for Human Rights [FIDH], to name just a few — Mr. Shahabi was returned to prison shortly after surgery, despite his doctor’s orders that the patient must have strict bed rest for three months outside prison conditions. The return to prison has obstructed his recovery.

To protest the deliberate withholding of medical treatment for political prisoners, he has gone on frequent hunger strikes. As a result, according to an Amnesty International report, Mr. Shahabi was granted a brief medical leave in early 2013, but was soon sent back.

The quality and nature of the treatments, if any, that Mr. Shahabi received during his furlough are unknown. What is known, is that Mr. Shahabi’s condition has worsened to the point that he is incapable of moving without the help of his cellmates. Hospital doctors have stated that he needs further spinal surgery along with physiotherapy. The doctors have further warned authorities that without treatment, Mr. Shahabi’s condition will lead to complete paralysis of his entire left side.

On August 10, 2013, security forces attacked prisoners of ward 350 of Evin prison where Mr. Shahabi is being held. Mr. Shahabi was grabbed and thrown on the floor even though other prisoners warned the agents about Mr. Shahabi’s fragile condition. This attack seriously intensified it. On September 4th, 2013, the Tehran Coroner’s Office examined Reza Shahabi at Evin prison. Based on a MRI scan it was confirmed a disc connected to three vertebrae was critically damaged, and that he should be immediately transferred to hospital for surgery.

Although Mr. Shahabi was technically approved for medical furlough by prison authorities, and taken to a hospital, according to HRANA News Agency’s February 7, 2014 report, he was promptly returned to prison without treatment and his medical furlough revoked — a tactic apparently often used by the regime to make it look as if the prisoner received medical treatment in order to appease the public and human rights groups.

According to reports from reliable sources inside Iran, including Mr. Shahabi’s family, his condition is deteriorating rapidly and yet the prison authorities and the attorney general, despite published news to the contrary, deny him medical leave from prison. In an extremely rare and daring phone call from Evin prison in November of 2013, Mr. Shahabi told CFPPI:

“The condition for those inside prison who need medical intervention is getting worse daily. Things have become even worse since Rouhani came to power. We are denied all medicine and help. … no matter what our medical ailment is they just give us a shot of cortisone … which does not help many of our conditions. Please do something quickly… things are getting worse daily for us. … You are our only hope. Our only hope is human rights organizations outside Iran. Please do something to help us.”

Additionally, Mr. Shahabi has been ordered to pay an extortionate “fine” of 70 million Rials (US$5,700) or his release date will be delayed to May 2016 from May 2014. The prosecutor is also seeking to bring the new charge of “enmity to God” for alleged involvement with a banned opposition group that advocates overthrowing the Islamic Republic. This new charge can bring forth the death penalty or decades more in prison. It is believed that the authorities are trying heavily to punish Mr. Shahabi and his family, for reporting to international human rights organizations regarding the regime’s unremitting human rights violations.

About the Author: Shadi Paveh is a human rights activist for Iran who works with many international human rights organizations. She is also known for co-translating a key interview which exposed Iran's regime dubious activities in Canada, as well as for translating and relaying many documents and letters from prisoners of conscience to the EU Parliament.


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Shahabi has been ordered to pay an extortionate fine of 70 million Rials (US$5,700) or his release date will be delayed by two years.

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