Iran’s security apparatus has escalated its targeting of Iranian dual citizens and foreign nationals whom they perceive to have links with Western academic, economic, and cultural institutions, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch has documented and reviewed the cases of 14 dual or foreign nationals whom Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Intelligence Organization has arrested since 2014. In many cases courts have charged them with cooperating with a “hostile state” without revealing any evidence. People interviewed about the cases said they believed that in the cases of those targeted, authorities perceived these individuals shared an ability to facilitate relationships between Iran and Western entities outside the control of Iranian security agencies.
“At a time when Iran was getting ready to open its door to international trade and cultural exchanges, security authorities were apparently throwing in prison some of the people best suited to rebuild relationships with the international community,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “This targeted campaign against foreign and dual nationals sends a threatening message to Iranian expatriates and foreigners interested in working in Iran, that their knowledge and expertise are a liability if they visit the country.”
In May and June 2018, Human Rights Watch interviewed 10 people with close knowledge of the 14 cases documented, including former detainees, lawyers, family members, and Iran policy experts. Human Rights Watch also reviewed Persian-language videos featuring these cases on Iran’s state TV, statements of Iranian officials, and submissions made on behalf of Iranian cases to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
Based on this evidence, it is apparent that Iranian authorities have violated detainees’ due process rights and carried out a pattern of politically motivated arrests. The exact number of those detained since 2014 is most likely considerably higher than the 14 cases Human Rights Watch confirmed. On November 9, 2017, Reuters reported that authorities had detained at least 30 dual nationals in Iran since 2015.
While detainees have ranged from academics to art curators, during interrogations, intelligence personnel accused detainees of spying or espionage based simply on their affiliations with Western public institutions, as opposed to any specific action or document that could raise the possibility of wrongdoing. The supposed incriminating videos Iranian state media broadcast also mirror the interrogators’ questions, highlighting detainees’ affiliations with various legitimate institutions and accusing them of espionage without offering any evidence.
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has ruled that the arrests and detentions in several of these cases were arbitrary, and that authorities targeted people based on their “national or social origin” as dual nationals or foreign nationals. It also noted that there was an emerging pattern of Iran detaining dual nationals.
The detention of these individuals is marked by serious due process violations. Iranian authorities systematically deny people charged with national security crimes access to lawyers of their choosing during the investigation phase. Sources familiar with detention of dual and foreign nationals have said that many of them did not have access to any legal counsel during investigation.
Branch 15 of Tehran’s revolutionary court has tried and sentenced a majority of the accused in these cases under article 508 of the Islamic penal code, which states that “any person or group who cooperates with hostile states in any shape or form… if not deemed Mohareb [a sentence which involves the death penalty], will be sentenced to 1 to 10 years in prison.” The revolutionary court verdicts, however, do not align with a 2014 opinion of Iran’s Supreme Court that stated, “Iran is not in conflict with any country and the phrase ‘hostile state’ does not refer to political differences with countries.”
Some Iranian media outlets close to the rights-abusing intelligence agencies, including the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) news agency, play an important role in undermining fair trial rights and the presumption of innocence by shaping public opinion about detainees’ alleged offenses. The outlets broadcast smear-campaign “documentaries” claiming that the accused are part of Western attempts to “infiltrate” the country. Some of the broadcasts include film of the accused making apparently coerced confessions.
Dual nationals who were detained and later released were usually not acquitted but released on what authorities have often called “humanitarian grounds.” Since the prisoner exchange between Iran and the United States in 2016, there have been several indications that Iranian authorities might be willing to again release detained dual and foreign nationals in return for bilateral agreements with the detained people’s countries.
“Having citizens with deep connections to other cultures and countries is an asset, not a criminal offense,” Whitson added. “But Iran’s security apparatus has apparently made the despicable decision to use these individuals as bargaining chips to resolve diplomatic disputes.”
Expanding Role of the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization
As Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has increased its role and influence, it has become the leading security agency targeting dual nationals and foreigners. In reaction to former President Mohammad Khatami’s attempts to achieve limited accountability for the serial assassinations of dissidents in the late 1990s, several groups began to develop parallel intelligence institutions outside the control of his presidency. Under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, those intelligence institutions retained and expanded their power outside the Intelligence Ministry’s oversight. An article published in the Fars News website on October 2106 reported that16 intelligence organizations were operating in Iran.
While Ahmadinejad’s Intelligence Ministry arbitrarily arrested hundreds of activists across the country, it was seen by other parts of the security establishment as incapable of dealing with the anti-government demonstrations that broke out following the June 2009 elections. Esmaeel Ahmadi Moghadam, the former head of Tehran’s police, told Shargh newspaper on August 23, 2015 that the Intelligence Ministry was weak because reformist forces created its structure: “During the 2009 sedition [i.e., Green Movement election protests] we felt that the ministry staff at large were good people… but there were tendencies [toward reformists] and these people will not do their best to cut the roots of the sedition.”
Hardliner intelligence forces went a step further in 2009, when on October 7, IRNA news agency reported that the status of the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit was upgraded to the IRGC Intelligence Organization, designating it a major intelligence institution with broad powers. When President Hassan Rouhani’s term began in 2013, his intelligence minister attempted to facilitate coordination among intelligence institutions by regularly convening meetings of the Council to Coordinate Intelligence.
On October 11, 2017, a court sentenced Abdol Rasoul Dorri Esfehani, a dual Canadian-Iranian citizen and a member of Iran’s nuclear negotiations team arrested by Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence, to five years in prison for “espionage.” Intelligence Minister Alavi then said that he did not consider Dorri Esfahani a spy and that it is the Intelligence Ministry that makes such determinations. Mizan Online News Agency, the judiciary’s news agency, published an article the next day saying that other intelligence agencies, such as the Revolutionary Guards, have similar mandates.
The Intelligence Ministry continues to target people on vaguely defined espionage charges, but the IRGC Intelligence Organization, led by Hossein Taeb, appears to have established itself as the leading security agency in repressing dissent and perceived threats to the autocratic control of the Islamic Republic’s unelected political bodies, extending its reach to foreign and dual nationals.
Arrests of Dual Nationals, Foreigners under Presidents Khatami and Ahmadinejad Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian journalist, was among the most prominent victimsof these parallel security institutions during the Khatami presidency. Iranian security forces detained Kazemi at Tehran’s Evin prison for photographing in a restricted area in front of the same prison in July 2003. She died in detention just a few days later, but the authorities have not provided a clear answer about the circumstances her death.
Under Ahmadinejad, the authorities arrested and intimidated several Iranian dual nationals, in particular scholars who worked on civil society issues, on allegations of working to “build networks” or planning a “color revolution” in Iran. In April 2006, authorities arrested Ramin Jahanbegloo, an Iranian-Canadian philosopher and the director of contemporary studies at the Cultural Research Bureau, a private institution in Tehran. Iran’s Intelligence Minister at the time, Mohseni Ejeyi, accused Jahanbegloo of working towards the US goal of instigating a “color Revolution in Iran,” and authorities detained him for four months.
On May 11, Intelligence Ministry agents arrested Kian Tajbakhsh, a scholar with Iranian and US nationality, on similar charges of “furthering the interests of foreign powers,” “espionage,” “planning the soft overthrow of the government,” and “acting against national security.” The government apparently focused on Tajbakhsh because of his ties with foreign institutions, namely the Soros Foundation, for which he worked as a consultant.
On July 18 and 19, Iranian state television broadcast Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh’s “confession” in a program called “In the Name of Democracy.” During the program, Esfandiari, Tajbakhsh, and Jahanbegloo were allegedly coerced to appear in front of the camera to describe their efforts in creating relationships between Iranian and American policymakers in academic settings. Authorities ultimately released Tajbakhsh and Esfandiari in September 2007 and allowed Esfandiari to leave the country.
Around the same period, in May 2007, authorities arrested another Iranian-American, Ali Shakeri, a founding board member of University of California Irvine’s Center for Citizen Peacebuilding, and temporarily confiscated the passports of two journalists, Parnaz Azima, an Iranian-American, and Mehrnoush Solouki, a French-Iranian, preventing both from leaving Iran. The authorities released Shakeri in September 2007 with no further explanation.
In the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential elections, authorities targeted dual nationals and Iranians connected to Western Embassies, apparently as part of Iranian efforts to frame their narrative of the protests being plotted by the West. Tajbakhsh, whom authorities arrested again, Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian reporter for Newsweek, Nazak Afshar, an Iranian employee of the French Embassy in Tehran, Hossein Rassam, an Iranian employee of the British embassy in Tehran, and Clotilde Reiss, a French academic working in Iran, were among the dozens of individuals who appeared in televised mass trials after the elections. Authorities accused arrested diplomatic staff of instigating protests and released them on bail, after which they left the country.
Tajbakhsh said during his trial that the 2009 unrest was the result of years of American planning as part their effort to carry out a “soft overthrow” of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He also said he considered himself a victim of Western propaganda. Dozens of people who appeared in the same televised trials have said that they were tortured and coerced into making false confessions.
In October, the court sentenced Tajbakhsh to 12 years in prison on charges of acting against national security. The “evidence” included membership on a mailing list, links to anti-regime figures, and accepting a consultancy from George Soros. The Court of Appeal reduced his sentence to five years. In May 2010, Branch 26 of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court sentenced Bahari, who had left Iran, to 13 years in prison. After leaving Iran, Bahari wrote in a letter that he had been tortured into confessing that he had intended to “overthrow the government.”
In August 2011, authorities arrested Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, a former US Marine, who his family said was visiting relatives in Iran. Iranian authorities accused him of espionage. On December 18, Iranian state television aired a confession by Hekmati in which he said he had infiltrated Iran to establish a CIA presence in the country. After serving in the US Marine Corps from 2001 to 2005, in 2006 Amir Hekmati started his own company, Lucid Linguistics, doing document translation that specialized in Arabic, Persian, and “military-related matters,” according to its website.
Hekmati had also worked for Kuma Games, which enabled players to participate in military confrontation games based on real events. Among its games was one in 2005 that involved an imagined American military attack on Iran.
On January 9, 2012, a revolutionary court sentenced Hekmati to death for espionage. The Supreme Court granted his appeal in March 2012 and in April 2014, the court sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
In July 2012, authorities arrested Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American Christian pastor and a convert from Islam while he was building an orphanage in Iran. A court charged Abedini with acting against national security by establishing home churches and sentenced him to eight years in prison. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, had warned in October 2010 about the “enemy’s effort to promote promiscuity, false mysticism, Baha’i faith and expansion of house churches.” Hekmati and Abedini remained in prison until January 2016, then were released in a prisoners’ swap with the US.
Rouhani and the Post-Nuclear Agreement Era (2014-2018)
After the nuclear negotiations with Europe and the US resulted in an agreement, Ayatollah Khamenei and other leading government figures expressed concerns about Western intentions to influence Iranian politics through engagement. In October 2015 Khamenei explicitly advised against negotiating further with the US as it could open doors for cultural, economic, political, and security infiltration. The phrase “infiltration” became the watchword for intelligence agencies in defining domestic enemies they claimed were national security “threats.”
Ahmad Jannati, the head of Iran’s Guardian Council, said that the “JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] was the first step… They [the West] will come for other things, and if the people and government don’t refuse, tomorrow they will ask us to recognize Israel, to equalize men and women’s rights, to abolish Qisas, to legalize gay marriage and cut ties with Hezbollah, Syria, and Iraq.”
Since November 2015, the newspaper, Kayhan, seen as close to the intelligence apparatus, has published numerous articles on the West’s supposed infiltration attempts into Iran, including start-up and environmental activities. These articles have mentioned several people by name, including dual nationals, accusing them without proof of cooperating with the West. Many of those named have been arrested and detained.
Dual, Foreign Nationals Detained by the Revolutionary Guards Since 2014
Jason Rezaian, 42, Washington Post correspondent in Tehran. Arrested on July 22, 2014.
Following Rezaian’s arrest, news websites close to security forces published several accusations against him, calling him an American spy but offering no clear evidence. On August 5, Vatan-e Emrooz news website ran a profile on Rezaian, accusing him of links to lobby groups that pursue the “Western human rights case” to increase external pressure on Iran.
On October 11, 2015, Hojatoleslam Mohseni Ejeyi, the judiciary spokesman, announced that a revolutionary court had sentenced Rezaian to prison, without revealing his sentence or the specific charges for which he had been convicted. On October 19, Fars News agency, which is close to the Republican Guard, published an article quoting Karimi Ghodussi, a parliament member, saying that according to the Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence officials, Rezaian had a close relationship with members of the Iranian government establishment, including the Office of the President and the Foreign Ministry.
Karimi Ghodussi claimed that one of the goals of the network Rezaian was a part of was “to lay a red carpet [for] Americans [to] return to Iran and the revival of American policies before the Islamic Revolution.” On January 16, 2016, the day the nuclear agreement went into force, Rezaian was released as part of a prisoners’ swap between Iran and the US.
Siamak Namazi, 46, the head of strategic planning at Dubai-based Crescent Petroleum. Arrested on October 13, 2015.
Namazi, a dual Iranian-American citizen, was first interrogated by intelligence officials when he landed at the Imam Khomeini airport from Dubai on July 18, 2015.
For the next three months, the Revolutionary Guards summoned and interrogated Namazi numerous times and accused him of spying for Western countries. On October 13, authorities arrested him and transferred him to 2-Alef ward of Evin prison, which is under the Revolutionary Guards’ control. The UN working group reported that the authorities did not allow Namazi to have a lawyer during the investigation phase, telling him that he could only choose a lawyer from an approved list, but he was never even provided this list despite his repeated requests.
On October 18, 2016, Mizan Online News Agency reported that Branch 15 of Tehran’s revolutionary court had sentenced Namazi to 10 years in prison based on article 508 of the Islamic Penal Code. On August 28, 2017, Jared Genser, the lawyer of Namazi’s family, told media that an Appeal’s court had upheld the sentence. Since Namazi’s arrest, state-sponsored media outlets have produced several video clips, and articles accusing him of working to advance Western interests but had offered no evidence of wrongdoing.
On October 16, 2016, Mizan Online News Agency published a video titled, “Latest Humiliation,” which showed authorities arresting Namazi. The video shows copies of Namazi’s passport and a United Arab Emirates residency card. Subsequent videos produced by pro-hardline institutions accused the Namazi family of plotting the 2009 “unrest” and working toward Iran-US rapprochement by providing policy briefs and talks at various institutions in Washington, DC, as well as providing logistical support for Iran’s growing start-up sector through Atiyeh Bahar, a consultancy firm based in Iran.
On August 28, Genser, the Namazi family’s lawyer, said that the Namazis’ Iranian lawyers had filed an appeal with Iran’s Supreme Court in response to Iran suing the US at the International Court of Justice or ICJ) for breaching the 1955 Amity treaty between the two countries. The treaty, which Iran is arguing still applies to the US and Iran, is in apparent tension with the charge against Namazi of “cooperating with a hostile country” [i.e., the US].
Nizar Zakka, Lebanese information technology expert. Arrested on September 18, 2015.
Zakka, a Lebanese citizen with US permanent residency who lives in Washington, DC, is an advocate for internet freedom and leads a nonprofit group that has worked for the US government. He was arrested after he had traveled to Iran on September 18, 2015, to participate in a conference on entrepreneurship at the government’s invitation. Zakka did not have access to legal counsel during pretrial detention. On October 18, 2016, Mizan Online News Agency reported that Branch 15 of Tehran’s revolutionary court had sentenced Zakka to 10 years in prison for cooperating with a foreign enemy state. An appeals court upheld the sentence. In November 2015, Mashregh news website, close to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, published articles accusing Zakka of being part of “the US project for Iran post-JCPOA.” On September 14, in response to a question from Associated Press about Zakka’s arrest, Shahindokht Mowlverdy, Rouhani’s advisor for citizens right said that “We did all we could to stop this from happening, but we are seeing that we have failed to make a significant impact.
Matthew Trevithick, 32, researcher. Arrested in December 2015.
Trevithick went to Iran in mid-September 2015 to study Persian and was arrested in December. Authorities pressured Trevithick to appear on state television and accused him of “trying to overthrow the Iranian government,” he told CNN during an interview. On January 16, 2016, he was released as part of the US-Iran prisoner swap.
Baquer Namazi, 81, Retired UNICEF Staff. Arrested on February 22, 2016.
On or about February 21, 2016, Baquer Namazi, Siamak’s father, received a call from Evin prison informing him that special permission had been granted for him to visit his son, but that the permission was valid only for February 24. IRGC Intelligence Organization authorities arrested him on February 22, after he landed in Tehran from the UAE, and detained him in 2-Alef Ward of Evin prison. They accused him of espionage and collusion with an enemy state, but presented no evidence.
On February 26, Fars News and Mashregh news agencies, both close to Revolutionary Guard forces, accused Namazi of being a “key element in network-building for change in Iran.” In a case similar to the one against his son, in October 2016, a revolutionary court sentenced Namazi to 10 years in prison for cooperating with a foreign enemy state. The appeals court has upheld the sentence.
In determining that the continued detention of Siamak and Baquer Namazi, is arbitrary, the UN Working Group said that they had been targeted on the basis of their “national or social origin” as dual nationals, which was part of an emerging pattern in Iran. On August 27, 2018, Mehrdad Ghorbani Sarabi, the Namazis’ lawyer in Iran, told the Iranian Labor News Agency that Baquer Namazi has been on a medical furlough since January.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 40, a manager at the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Arrested on April 3, 2016.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian national who was visiting her family in Iran, was arrested at the Tehran Airport when she was boarding a plane with her 2-year-old daughter to return to the United Kingdom. In June 2016, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in Kerman province issued a statement accusing her of “participating in designing and carrying out media and cyber projects aimed at the soft overthrow of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
On September 6, her family announced that Branch 15 of Tehran’s revolutionary court had sentenced her to five years in prison on vague national security charges, in connection with her past work at the BBC Media Action and Thomson Reuters Foundation. Iran’s Supreme Court upheld the verdict on April 24, 2017.
On November 24, 2017 the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) online news agency published a video accusing Zaghari-Ratcliffe of having ties to the British intelligence service through SOAS University. Zaghari-Ratcliffee did not attend the SOAS university. The IRIB video also accused her of working to instigate unrest in Iran by training journalists and bloggers on internet security, showing several email exchanges allegedly involving Zaghari-Ratcliffe, as well as a copy of her old paycheck, which appeared to have been taken from her personal devices.
In August 2016, the UN Working Group ruled that the detention of Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arbitrary. The opinion considered that the source of the complaint had established a prima facie case showing that her arrest and detention was motivated by a discriminatory factor, namely her status as a dual Iranian-British national.
On July 23, 2018 the Zaghari-Ratcliffe family announced that an Iranian Judge confirmed that she will not be released temporarily, given parole, or shown clemency on humanitarian grounds, until UK government debt is repaid to Iran.
Homa Houdfar, 68, anthropology professor at Concordia University. Arrested in early June 2016.
Over the previous three months, authorities had confiscated the Iranian-Canadian professor’s passport and interrogated her several times. On June 24, Jafari Dolatabadi, Tehran’s prosecutor, said in news conference that Hoodfar was arrested for “feminist activities” and national security crimes. On June 24, the Young Journalist Club (YJC) news agency accused Hoodfar of being part of an American infiltration plot. On July 11, Mizan Online News Agency reported that Hoodfar’s case had been submitted to a court. On September 26, Iran released Hoodfar on humanitarian grounds.
Karen Vafadari and Afarin Neyssari, art curators. Arrested on July 20, 2016.
The Revolutionary Guards arrested the Iranian-American Zoroastrian couple, who owned a well-known art gallery, Aun, in Tehran airport. Vafadari’s family said the couple were interrogated for various trumped-up charges ranging from being a dual national and having alcoholic beverages at their house to associating with foreign diplomats, labelling their home a center of vice (prostitution), being spies, and collaborating with the enemies of the state. As well as attempting to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran, recruiting and signing up spies through foreign embassies, and assembly, and collusion against national security.
On January 30, 2018, Vafadari announced in a letter that the court had sentenced him to 27 years in prison and his wife to 16 years. Vafadari wrote: “Unfortunately, my international activities [in the art world] raised the suspicions of the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization…Fortunately, the initial, baseless security accusations that led to our arrest were dropped, but our gallery, office, warehouses and home remained locked and our cars, computers and documents were confiscated, followed by accusations and interrogations that indicated a deeper plot.” On July 22, authorities temporarily released the couple on bail.
Xiyue Wang, doctoral student at Princeton University. Arrested on August 8, 2016. The American doctoral student at Princeton University had been conducting research for his dissertation on the history of the Qajar dynasty, Iran’s ruling monarchy that ended in the early 20th century, in Iran’s public national archive. Princeton University said that before traveling to Iran, Wang explained his research plan to the Iranian Interest Section at the Pakistani embassy in Washington, DC, which issued his visa, and to the libraries in Iran that he planned to visit. The Mizan Online News Agency reported on July 16, 2017 that a revolutionary court had sentenced Wang to 10 years in prison on charges of “cooperating with an enemy state.” In September, a court of appeal upheld the sentence.
On November 26, 2017, the IRIB broadcasted a video in which it claimed that Xiyue Wang had traveled to Iran to obtain documents from the Iranian Foreign Ministry, National Library, and parliament on behalf of the US government. IRIB did not mention that documents in these archives are accessible by the public. Wang also appeared in the video saying that “the more the US has more information about Iran, the better they can set the policies.”
Abdolrasoul Dorri Esfahani, accountant. Arrested in August 2016.
Dorri Esfahani, an Iranian-Canadian member of Iran’s nuclear negations delegation, was accused of espionage in August 2016. While the intelligence minister rejected the allegations, in May 2017, branch 15 of Tehran’s revolutionary court sentenced him to five years in prison for espionage charges including “collaborating with the British secret service.” On September 2, 2018, Karimi Ghodussi, a parliamentarian from Mashad, posted a “documentary” film, “Toronto 521” on his website that accused Esfahani of working with American and British intelligence services but provided no evidence.
Kavous Seyed Emami, 65, professor at Imam Sadegh University. Arrested on January 24 or 25, 2018.
Seyed Emami, a prominent Iranian-Canadian environmentalist, was arrested during a wave of detentions of environmentalists on January 24 and 25. On February 10, Ramin Seyed Emami, his son, wrote on social media that authorities had summoned his mother the day before to inform her that her husband, who was detained in 2-Alef ward of Evin prison, had “committed suicide” in detention.
On February 15, Iranian state TV aired a program that that falsely accused Kavous Seyed-Emami and other detained environmentalists of using surveys of endangered Asiatic cheetahs as a pretext for spying in strategically sensitive areas without any evidence. The video state media broadcast showed nothing but Seyed Emami’s family photos and videos of family parties, while accusing him of working to collect military intelligence for foreigners.
Morad Tahbaz, businessman. Arrested on January 24 or 25, 2018.
Tahbaz, an Iranian-American businessman and an environmental activist who also holds British citizenship, was arrested during the crackdown on environmentalists in late January. The charges against Tahbaz and other environmentalists in Evin prison remain unclear, but several news outlets close to the Revolutionary Guards have accused Tahbaz of being the central figure in an espionage plot but provided no evidence for such a grave accusation.