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Iranian man 'lashed to death' over alcohol possession

While the family released videos of the victim's body with lash marks, authorities claim his death was caused by deteriorating health.
A man walks past some of the thousands of photos of people killed in Iran during the 1988 massacre of political prisoners.

An Iranian man died after he was submitted to a lashing penalty inside a jail in Iran's Turkish-majority eastern Azerbaijan province.

The inmate, identified as Hadi Atazadeh, had been handed an unspecified prison sentence and lashes after being charged with alcohol possession one and a half years ago. Under the Islamic Republic's strict penal code, consumption and possession of alcoholic drinks are punishable by up to 80 lashes and/or varying imprisonment terms in some cases.

Atazadeh's relatives released videos of what seemed to be a morgue in his hometown, Ahar, where the black and blue body with obvious lash marks was being washed as part of the Islamic pre-burial ritual. The growing backlash drew reactions from local justice department authorities who offered different explanations and denied the lashing had caused the man's death. A brief official statement on Sept. 1 said the prisoner had reported some pain in his stomach before being transferred to a hospital "where despite the efforts made, he unfortunately died the day after." The statement claimed no torture marks were detected in forensic examinations. Other reports on state media attributed the death to multiple causes, including suicide, the coronavirus and "possible intoxication, which left the prisoner brain-dead."

The victim's brother, however, refuted all of those accounts in an interview with Voice of America's Persian service, saying the prisoner had no medical history and remained in "absolutely good health" prior to his death before fellow inmates urged the guards to offer immediate medical attention, as the victim went through deteriorating pain triggered by the lashes.

Death in custody is not rare in the Iranian prison system. The most controversial case that drew international attention, as the victim was a dual national, dates back to 2003 when Canadian-Iranian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi died of a skull injury she sustained during interrogation. Worker and government critic Sattar Behehshti reportedly died under torture in 2012 after being arrested over his weblog posts critical of the Iranian government. And, as recently as late February, dervish and political activist Behnam Mahjoubi, who was serving time over participation in an anti-government rally, died of worsening health amid "medical negligence."

The case of Atazadeh comes only a week after surveillance videos released by a hacker group showing mistreatment of detainees inside notorious Evin Prison caught Iranian authorities off guard. The leaked, "shocking" videos, according to Amnesty International, were only "the tip of the iceberg" of the ordeal many Iranian prisoners face inside the walls of the country's detention centers.

Only on Wednesday, the hacker group released another video of what seems to be scattered bloodstains on the prison floor. The non-CCTV footage has been specifically attributed to a moment of torture suffered by prominent female rights advocate Narges Mohammadi. The activist confirmed the video in an interview with the London-based Iran International TV. "These are the very same stairs over which I was dragged more than once," she said.

"It is not simply about disorder in the prison," she said in reference to prevalent abuse inside Evin. "It is, on the contrary, a systematic and targeted order aimed at intimidation and fearmongering among the prisoners. … It is the systematic will of a repressive regime."

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