x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

When the truth is a casualty, many more will also suffer

Two recent news stories that have disgraced the industry and made innocent people suffer: the case of stolen identities in the Mossad-led hit on a Hamas operative, and a case of mistaken identity for Iran's "Neda".

I am not easily shocked. I've been doing this work for too many years and I've seen too much to become outraged by bad behaviour or acts of indecency and inhumanity. But two stories that recently came across my desk were so disgraceful, and in some ways dangerous, that I feel compelled to write about them. Both featured players in the Middle East who are crassly abusing the living and the dead. The first story involved Israel's Mossad spy agency and the method it allegedly used to secure a fraudulent passport for one of its agents who participated in the January 19, 2010 assassination of Mahmoud al Mabhouh in Dubai.

German law offers citizenship and a passport to the descendants of German Jewish citizens who were forced to flee the country to escape the horrors of the Holocaust during the Second World War. Taking advantage of this provision, a Mossad agent claiming to be Michael Bodenheimer, the grandson of a German Jewish survivor, secured a German passport which he later used to enter the UAE, where he was allegedly involved in the murder of al Mabhouh.

A few weeks ago, the Jerusalem Post reported that the real Michael Bodenheimer, an Orthodox rabbi who emigrated from the United States to Israel, claimed that his identity had been stolen by the Mossad agent, and that he had "never asked for a German passport... [and] never had one". The real Mr Bodenheimer and his family were, of course, concerned that their name was implicated in an assassination.

More than just this abuse of one innocent civilian, there is a real concern about the Mossad's cavalier abuse of the German citizenship programme. Israel's behaviour in this regard is dangerous. It puts the real Mr Bodenheimer at risk while casting suspicion on an entire category of people - Jews who have sought, or will seek, German citizenship. As such, the agency callously exploited those who were murdered and the descendants of those who survived.

Then there are the recent revelations about the Iranian woman who was murdered in the demonstrations that erupted after last year's Iranian elections. The woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, quickly became internationally recognised as a martyr and a symbol of the "Green revolution". Her face was consistently shown on CNN and BBC television news, and plastered on the front pages of newspapers around the world, where it often appeared with the tagline "the Angel of Iran". One particular photo was picked up by the Voice of America and spread to Iran, where it appears on posters and T-shirts.

The story is true: Neda Agha-Soltan was murdered. But the picture that spread virally is not of her. Careless journalism, to be kind, picked up the Facebook photo of one Neda Soltani, a quite beautiful Iranian teaching assistant and student of English Literature at Tehran University. Despite the mistaken identity, the photo stuck. A piece on Foreign Policy's website last week carefully traces not just the carelessness that lead to the mistaken identity but, more disturbingly, the consequences for the living Ms Soltani who is the innocent victim of this error.

As she sought to reclaim her identity and her image, the Iranian regime sought to exploit her situation, claiming that "Neda lives", vainly arguing that the entire episode was a hoax and that no murder had been committed. When Ms Soltani went online demanding that her picture be taken down, she received threats and abusive responses from supporters of the movement who argued that she was threatening to deny their cause the martyred "Angel of Iran".

And when the parents of the murdered woman attempted to replace the mistaken photo with one of their daughter, they found that neither their efforts nor the truth could compete with the symbol. Fearing pressure from the regime, and frustrated by the loss of her identity, the living Ms Soltani was forced to flee Iran and take refuge in Germany where she currently lives. As disturbing as these stories are, equally troubling is the lack of attention they have received, particularly in the United States. With the exception of the Foreign Policy piece, the story of Ms Soltani has received scant attention when compared with the coverage given to the use of the original photo last summer - while the Bodenheimer story has not been covered at all.

The lesson that emerges from all of this is that when governments, media and movements abuse the living and dead to pursue their ends, truth and innocent people pay the price. James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute