Iran Targeting Expatriates
February 2, 2012
"I could hear her make prisoners laugh. Sometimes, she even made the guards laugh." This is what a former prisoner remembers of Zahra Bahrami, who, she says, was lively, kind to her fellow prisoners, and defiant towards the guards. (Boroumand Foundation interview with a former political prisoner, January 2012)
One year ago in one of the last days of January 2011, the Islamic Republic of Iran announced the execution of Zahra Bahrami, an Iranian-Dutch citizen visiting Iran. Bahrami is one of many Iranian expatriates punished following an unfair judicial process. Over the years, several Iranians with dual citizenship who worked with the Iranian civil society, facilitated exchanges of ideas, or relayed news coming from Iran, have been arrested. Some have been released thanks to sustained international pressure. Others however, are still serving prison sentences, or are on death row, such as Saeed Malekpour, an Iranian-Canadian computer programmer. The government message is clear: communicating independently with Iranians or echoing their voices is not allowed. And it works.
Expatriates arrested in Iran have little in common as to their background or activity. But, whether they are academics (Ramin Jahanbeglou [May-August 2006]), women's rights activists (Esha Momeni [October-November 2008]), journalists (Roxana Saberi [January-May 2009]), scientists (Omid Kokabi [since January 2011]), or in programming or web-related activities, (Hossein Derakhshan [November 2008- May 2010] and Saeed Malekpour [since October 2008]), they are invariably subjected to the same treatment. Arrested expatriates were isolated from the outside world, subjected to psychological and, for some, physical torture, and forced to confess on television to crimes that they later denied. Their arrests effectively ended their activities and severed their relationships with their colleagues and contacts inside Iran.
Bahrami was arrested shortly after the Ashura street protests in December 2009. She was first charged with "waging war against God" and being linked to a monarchist group. Her angry voice, reporting on the violence that she had witnessed on the streets to a foreign-based television network, can still be heard on YouTube. Later however, perhaps because of her past drug-related conviction in the Netherlands, she was charged with drug dealing and tried based on this charge only. She was denied the right to appeal her death sentence, and was hanged to the astonishment of her lawyer, her family, and it seems, the Dutch authorities who had been given reassurances by the prosecutor's office. A hasty burial without the presence of her family in a town chosen by the authorities was the last chapter of a life filled with tragedy.
Zahra Bahrami was arrested for political reasons, but her past conviction made her vulnerable and an easy target for a government eager to isolate Iranians from the rest of the world. Saeed Malekpour, who, according to his family, was tortured and left with a broken skull and jaw, was coerced into confession and sentenced to death in a flawed judicial process. The active involvement of the Revolutionary Guards in his case and the judge's refusal to heed the Supreme Court's request to look into the investigation's flaws suggest that his arrest is politically motivated and linked, perhaps, to his success in giving Iranians technical means to share information. But he is made vulnerable by the fact that the software he wrote was used to create a pornographic site -- one of the most visited websites in Iran. His conviction as a "corruptor on earth" has been confirmed by the Supreme Court and he may be executed at any time.
Terrorizing Iranian expatriates has become a feature of Iran's policy under President Ahmadinejad. The regime has no tolerance for a discourse challenging its version of what the Iranian people want. It silences individuals or groups whose activities or discourse it does not direct or control. To stop any alternative perspective from leaking out, it also targets Iranian expatriates who travel to Iran and communicate with their peers. The international community has successfully campaigned for the release of prisoners in the past. But the well-connected and highly visible individuals are exceptions. Saeed Malekpour, like Zahra Bahrami, is neither of these. The international community can make a difference by showing that it is not fooled by televised confessions. To do so, it has to consistently challenge the regime's version of facts and call for the release of the victims of a judiciary that makes a mockery of due process of law.