(New York, NY) — Jailed Iranian human rights activist Narges Mohammadi penned a letter from Zanjan prison on July 13, noting that she is suffering the symptoms of COVID-19—including coughing, fatigue, diarrhea, and loss of smell—but that she has been denied proper medical care, and that authorities are withholding her test results. PEN America calls on the Iranian government to act quickly to address Mohammadi’s grave health concerns, and to release all those unjustly held in prison on political grounds, especially in this moment of heightened health risks.

“The continued imprisonment of Narges Mohammadi despite her deteriorating health is cruel and life-threatening,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of PEN America’s Free Expression At Risk Programs. “Narges should never have been behind bars to begin with, but her possible infection with COVID-19 in Zanjan prison highlights the heightened risks political prisoners face during the pandemic, while the denial of medical care and the withholding of her test results represents a grave attack on prisoners’ rights. Given the gravity of her situation, we urge Iranian authorities to consider grant Mohammedi temporary release—as they have done with thousands of other inmates—so that she might be able to fully recover from the virus.”

Mohammadi is an independent journalist and the former vice president and spokesperson of the Defenders of Human Rights Center (DHRC), which advocates for human rights reform and represents political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in legal proceedings. She is also involved in campaigning against the death penalty in Iran. Mohammadi has long suffered persecution at the hands of the Iranian state; she was banned from traveling abroad in 2009, and was arrested in connection with her work at the DHRC in 2010. When released on bail in July 2010, she moved to France to live with her husband. After a video of her criticizing the treatment of prisoners in Iran’s Evin prison went viral on social media, however, she was summoned to Iran and sentenced to 16 years in prison for a variety of charges, including “gathering and colluding with intent to harm national security,” “spreading propaganda against the system,” and “founding and running an illegal organization” for her work advocating against the death penalty.

Over the course of her time in prison, she has been repeatedly denied medical care for a range of illnesses, including a gallbladder operation, pulmonary embolism, and repeated seizures. Originally held in Evin Prison, she was forcibly transferred to Zanjan Prison, 211 miles west of Tehran, in late 2019 after organizing several hunger strikes.

The right to free expression is routinely restricted and severely punished in Iran, and authorities regularly employ a wide range of tactics to silence dissidents. PEN America’s recently released inaugural Freedom to Write Index found that Iran ranked fourth worldwide in terms of the number of writers and public intellectuals in jail in 2019, with 14 behind bars during the year.