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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Families of Iranian ‘hostages’ make rare joint appeal for freedom

Relatives of seven men say that nations should raise their detentions during meetings with Tehran

Robert Levinson. AFP
Robert Levinson. AFP

The families of seven men imprisoned in Iran have joined forces for a rare joint appeal to world leaders to pile pressure on Tehran for their freedom.

Some have spoken out for the first time to call on governments to put the plight of the detainees foremost in any discussions with the clerical regime amid heightened tensions after US President Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal.

In an open letter, the families said that more than 50 foreign and dual nationals had been detained since 2007 with as many 20 still being held as “hostages”. They said they were representing the views of other detainees who feared speaking out publicly for fear of reprisals against their family members.

The relatives said the seizure of the seven men were part of “deliberate and tactical moves… to secure bargaining chips” by the Iranian authorities during their political brinkmanship with the West.

“We believe that the Iranian authorities have little incentive to end the cruel and horrific practice of hostage taking as a result of inadequate pressure from the international community,” said the letter.

“World leaders need to make the political cost for committing human rights violations so high that releasing our loved ones becomes advantageous to the Iranian authorities.”

The seven include the Dubai-based Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi and his father who were jailed for ten years for espionage.

Siamak Namazi. Handout / Reuters
Siamak Namazi. Handout / Reuters

The signatories also include the family of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent, who went missing in 2007 while investigating a cigarette smuggling racket in the island of Kish off Iran’s southern coast.

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The group of relatives has stopped short of making direct policy demands because of the different approaches of their governments to dealings with the clerical regime.

While the US has pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran and re-imposed sanctions, Austria has good relations with Iran and has joined with European allies in seeking avenues to continue trade with Iran in support of the nuclear deal.

Sweden has been traditionally neutral. During a visit to Iran last year by premier Stefan Lofven, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei talked of the countries’ shared optimism that would be a “fertile ground for developing co-operation”.

Harika Ghaderi, the wife of detained Austrian-Iranian businessman Kamran, said she was speaking out for the first time because Austria’s silent diplomacy had failed to work. She met some of the families for the first time last month.

“Until now I was silent,” she said. “It was the pressure from the Austrian foreign ministry telling me all the time that if you publish something, or go to NGOs, Kamran’s case will be very much worse.

“How can it be worse than now? His health has gone and his business. And I see the Austrian government signing so many contracts with Iran as if everything is normal.”

The letter from the families is due to be handed to US government officials including Nikki Haley, the outgoing US ambassador to the UN, who has told the families she will distribute the letter among Security Council members. The permanent members include Iranian ally Russia.

Ms Haley said the detentions were another example of Iran's violations of international norms. "Iran invented reasons to throw these innocent people in jail and keeps them there with no end in sight and no fair judicial process for them to pursue," she said in a statement. "They should be released immediately and returned to their families. We won’t rest until they are.”

The letter will also go to officials in the UK, Canada, Lebanon, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, the EU, UN and Oman, because of the Gulf state’s close links with Iran and its previous role as an arbiter in disputes.

The organisers said they believed the letter was a step to building a “coalition of voices” who are prepared to go public about stories of detained relatives. Many have kept quiet because of fears of reprisals by the regime in Tehran against their relatives.

“The evidence is conclusive, and we should call this what it is: hostage taking,” according to the letter published on Monday. “We urge all our governments, especially those who enjoy diplomatic relations with the country of Iran, to acknowledge this hostage taking crisis immediately and to take concrete steps that would help resolve these cases.”

The letter is signed on behalf of the seven families and “and the many more families who remain silent in fear for the safety of their loved ones”.

The idea for the letter emerged following a meeting of relatives at the UN General Assembly last month. They met again before giving evidence to the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran.

“We will speak out and loudly because the others don’t feel comfortable – yet there should be an outcry,” said Sarah (Levinson) Moriarty, the daughter of Mr Levinson.

“We are no closer to getting him back then we were eleven-and-a-half years ago,” she said. “I would like to see them [the governments] put the human rights cases at the forefront of all conversations whether they enjoy diplomatic relations or do business with Iran.

“I want see an international outcry like we have seen for others such as the Saudi journalist as I believe this is something of international concern. It’s a pattern, it’s hostage taking by the government of Iran.”

The public campaign has echoes of the stance of Briton Richard Radcliffe, who has defied official advice, to vigorously campaign for the release of his wife Nazanin who has been held since April 2016 on what her supporters say are trumped up charges.

Imprisoned in Iran

Robert Levinson

The longest-serving and one of the best-known foreign prisoners in Iran, although the circumstances of his arrest and detention remain shrouded in mystery.

The former FBI agent went missing in 2007 on Iran’s Kish Island where he was investigating a case of cigarette smuggling and on an unauthorised mission for the CIA.

Iran has never publicly admitted to holding Mr Levinson and his family only know he was held following the release of a hostage video and photos that were received by unknown captors.

His family has claimed in court papers that Iran sought to tied his release to the return of a Revolutionary Guard general who defected to the West.

Mr Levinson, 70, has only ever seen one of his eight grandchildren. He went missing when the youngest grandchild was aged just four months.

Kamran Ghaderi

An Austrian-Iranian dual national, Mr Ghaderi was jailed for ten years for espionage after a confession that he signed after three months of isolation and torture, according to his supporters.

The chief executive of an IT firm and father-of-three, was held after he landed at Tehran for a business trip in January 2016.

While in prison, he has had two operations on his back and has an untreated tumour on his leg, said his family. His lawyers have requested three times that he receive hospital treatment for the tumour – three times he has been rebuffed, said his wife.

Ahmadreza Djalali

A Swedish-Iranian scientist, was arrested and found guilty of spying after travelling to Iran to attend workshops on disaster medicine. He was falsely told he would be released if he made a confession.

Ahmadreza Djalali and family. Picture via Amnesty International
Ahmadreza Djalali and family. Picture via Amnesty International

Dr Djalali has worked to improve the techniques of hospitals in countries affected by disasters and armed conflict.

He has twice gone on hunger strikes to highlight his plight and has been transferred to hospital for emergency surgery. The UN, academics and 75 Nobel laureates have called for his release.

Baquer and Siamak Namazi

The father and son have both been given ten-year jail terms for “collaborating with a hostile state”.

Siamak Namazi, a joint US-Iranian national who was based in the UAE, was detained in October 2015 while he was visiting his family in Tehran.

His father, Baquer, a former Iranian provincial governor and ex-Unicef official, was detained the following February when he arrived in Iran to seek his son’s release.

The family said that Siamak has been held in exceptionally harsh conditions in Evin Prison including being forced to sleep on the floor while in solitary confinement. His father, now aged 82, has been taken to hospital seven times and is now out of prison on restricted medical leave.

Nizar Zakka

He was invited to Iran by a senior presidential adviser to address a conference on women’s rights but was detained by the hardline Revolutionary Guard on his way back to the airport.

Nizar Zakka. AP
Nizar Zakka. AP

It was the first time that an invited guest had been held by the authorities. “This is in no way approved by the government,” said the adviser, Shahindokht Molaverdi, in an interview in September. “We did all we could to stop this from happening, but we are seeing that we have failed to make a significant impact.”

The Lebanese national – who lived in the Washington DC – is a well-known advocate for freedom of speech and Internet freedom. He has been held since September 2015.

Saeed Malekpour

Mr Malekpour has been held for more than a decade since travelling from Canada to say goodbye to his dying father.

He was tortured, twice sentenced to death and kept in solitary confinement for more than three years, his family said. He was accused of managing a pornographic website at the instigation of western countries plotting to corrupt the morals of Iranians.

He was awaiting Canadian citizenship when he travelled to Iran and the government of Justin Trudeau has warned the family that it has limited ability to intervene because Mr Malekpour held Iranian nationality.