The likely experience of Iranian prisoners on hunger strike since May 22

Mohammad Hossein Sepehri, photo courtesy of #No2IR Resonance community. 

By | Rachel Brooks

June 23, 2021 

Updated June 24, 2021

Note: The following descriptions of prison conditions may be upsetting to some readers. Reader discretion is advised. 

On June 23, Fatemeh Sepehri, a former political prisoner of the Iranian regime, filmed a video of herself speaking on behalf of her brother, Mohammad Hossein Sepehri, who is a currently imprisoned Iranian dissident. The video was filmed following Fatemeh Seperhi’s visit to the prison where Mohammad Hossein Seperhi is incarcerated as a prisoner of conscience. 

Fatemeh Sepehri described the cruelty of the regime toward her brother and explained that he, along with his fellow prisoners, have been on a roughly month-long hunger strike against the prison staff, for failing to grant them telephone conversations with their loved ones.

The prisoners’ hunger strike began on May 22 to protest the denial of phone calls with their families, which they have been denied since March 31. The families of Sepehri and his fellow prisoners recently asked them to end the hunger strike as they have been promised phone access to the prisoners. They have waited to be granted this promised access for five days.

What a hunger strike participant will eventually medically experience 

The physiological effects of a month-long hunger strike are profound. Depending on the intensity and duration of the hunger strike, the effects will always be mind-altering and in some historic cases, such as the hunger strike of Terrence Mac Swiney in Brixton Prison, 1920, will be allowed to continue to the point of fatality. The experience of Iranian dissidents in such conditions could include one or more of the following 

symptoms observed in focus groups of hunger strike participants, and those starving as the result of harsh prison conditions. 

Note: This is a breakdown of the medical research regarding hunger strikes and does not note significant additional risks, such as those presented by prisoner brutalization, prison conditions, or other issues of the life of a prisoner of conscience. Added trauma would significantly increase the physical and mental duress of the prisoner in question. 

The European Journal of Neurology expounded on the neurological effects a hunger strike has. The study, conducted in 2006, observed 41 prisoners at the median age of 28.6. The prisoners had participated in hunger strikes between 2000 and 2002. The cases were evaluated using neuropsychological, neuroradiological, and electrophysiological methods. 

The study found in prolonged hunger strike participants neurological evidence that was consistent with Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome. 

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a condition caused by a lack of Vitamin B-1 and thiamine. The condition is two separate conditions that occur at the same time, the first being Wernicke disease and the second being Korsakoff syndrome. Symptoms of WKS include confusion, changes to eyes and vision, and exaggerated storytelling. This exaggerated storytelling is known as confabulation and is indicative of the memory disorders that will begin to develop once the person has been deficient in Vitamin B-1 and thiamine for a long time. 

“People of Iran, and around the world, be aware that the Regime’s cruelty is endless toward prisoners of conscience. These prisoners are not criminal,” Fatemeh Sepehri. 

See the full translated statement video here. 

What are the symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome? 

The prominent symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome include double-vision, a drooping upper eyelid, which is medically known as ptosis, up and down, or side-to-side sporadic eye movements, a loss of muscle coordination, which is medically known as ataxia and may impact the ability to walk, and a confused mental state. 

Other symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome include amnesia, and the inability to form new memories, difficulty with word context, difficulty understanding new information, hallucinations, and confabulation. 

The medical risks of drooping eyes, or ptosis, include excessive eye rubbing, a decreased field of vision on upper gaze, impaired vision, and the appearance of eyes drooping closed. Severe ptosis can cause a condition known as amblyopia or lazy eye.

Other conditions noted in hunger strike participants 

In the hunger strike participants, the European Journal of Neurology noted that “all 41 participants” experienced an “altered consciousness” that lasted between 3-31 days. Amnesia was apparent “in all cases.” 

Other observable issues included a condition called gaze-evoked horizontal nystagmus. This condition is produced by “the attempted maintenance of an extreme eye position.” This means that eye movement becomes involuntary. 

The study also observed truncal ataxia, which is the medical term for the “drunken sailor walk.” This condition is characterized by uncertain starts and stops, later deviations, and unequal steps, which are caused by an instability of the trunk.

John Hopkins University notes symptoms of increased fatigue as well as cognitive and mood problems associated with ataxia. The toll of vitamin deficiency and its impact on the brain will have an impact on the mood as well. Someone suffering from ataxia will have increased irritability, anxiety, and depression. 

Other ataxia issues include a lack of basic motor control, writes the Mayo Clinic. This will make simple tasks difficult, such as buttoning a shirt, writing, or eating. Ataxia likewise makes it difficult to swallow. 

Patients may have difficulty speaking, walking, balancing, or lose coordination in their hands and legs. Ataxia is caused by a deficiency in vitamin B-12, thiamine, and/or vitamin E. A hunger strike patient who is on a total fast will be deficient in all basic vitamins and minerals absorbed through food. 

Fatemeh Sepehri described the condition of the prisoners as “in poor health” and stated that they needed medical attention. This may be in part due to the hunger strike, but Sepehri likewise noted that the prisoners have been brutalized by prison guards. Mohammad Hossein Sepehri had his personal items seized by the prison staff, and when he requested that they would be returned, he was beaten. In the process one of his teeth was broken, his clothes were torn, and he received a significant scratch on his chest. 

Fatemeh Sepehri likewise stated that the prison refused to facilitate the medical attention that the prisoners need. Survivors of hunger strikes often require advanced medical treatments and psychological therapy, such as Basic Body Awareness Therapy, to recover completely. 

Despite this fact, the prison staff has continued in a pattern of cruelty, including locking Mr. Sepehri’s cell window where no fresh air can come in. 

The experience of Mr. Sepehri and his fellow prisoners is one of astronomical suffering. This is the unfortunate common experience of prisoners of conscience within the Iranian regime.