Bi-nationals in Iran’s prisons: No recourse?

The hanging of Dutch-Iranian Zarah Bahrami shocked officials, but have they changed diplomatic tactics with Iran since?

Abdullah al-Mansouri
Abdullah al-Mansouri, a Dutch-Iranian, has been held in prison in Iran since 2006 [Facebook]

When it comes to how things transpire in the Iranian justice system, the facts can be hard to ascertain, especially when determining the fate of Iranian multi-nationals within the system.

How many are incarcerated and what, if anything, is being done to get them consular and legal services? Time is of the essence in a country that seems to mysteriously circumvent even its own legal mechanisms.

How else to explain the case of Zahra Bahrami, a Dutch-Iranian who was hanged in 2011 by the Iranian government while her case was still under review?

Shortly before her arrest, Bahrami (who also went by “Kurdieh Banoo”) spoke on Persian Radio about the 2009 crackdowns 

Bahrami was arrested in Iran for participating in the 2009 Ashura protests. Iranian authorities said a search of her house turned up drugs and forged passports. According to a report on Dutch TV, the charges against Bahrami changed – was she in possession of cocaine or heroin? Four hundred grams or 1kg?

Iran provides no information on the number of dual or multi-national Iranians incarcerated – it only recognises their Iranian passports – so it stands to reason that the system does not count what it does not acknowledge. There’s no diplomatic channel or access to foreign lawyers.

Even when the families of the imprisoned are contacted by Iranian authorities, they are often pressured or advised to keep silent. Fearing retribution levelled at their imprisoned family members or those still living in Iran if they speak critically of the government, many stay silent.

If diplomatic mechanisms worked as they ought to, families wouldn’t be left to their own devices to navigate such perilous PR territory.

The government underestimated the risk of a death penalty and the execution at short notice. I asked the government for paying an Iranian specialised lawyer to work for Ms Bahrami a few weeks before the execution but the Minister of Foreign Affairs refused. He did not see the urgency.

by Adrie Tilburg, Zahra Bahrami's Dutch attorney

“The problem of many of the families and associates of dual nationals have is that they are intimidated by the interrogators who actually talk to them on the phone or have the detainee talk on their behalf, very clearly ordering them not to publicise or talk to the media,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, originally a project of the Dutch Foundation for Human Security in the Middle East.

At the time of Bahrami’s arrest, her daughter Banafsheh Nayebpour had to deal with stories that linked her arrest in Iran with her a prior record in the Netherlands. There, Bahrami had served a three-year sentence on similar charges, a matter Dutch officials said was “irrelevant” to her case.

Bahrami’s family said the drug charges against her in Iran were fabricated. Rather, from hearing Bahrami’s impassioned testimony on an Iranian radio show on the violence that tore through the streets of Iran in 2009, it becomes clear that she wanted the regime to collapsewhich is suspected to be the real reason for her arrest. 

Still, Bahrami was charged with drug trafficking, and her first attorney, prominent rights lawyer Nasrin Sotuodeh, was herself arrested in 2010. Sotuodeh is currently serving the six-year sentence she received in January 2011, the same month Bahrami was hanged.

Bahrami’s family and the Dutch authorities were not informed of the execution. Even her second Iranian attorney, Jinoos Sharif Razi, was not informed of her client’s execution until after the fact.

“I am shocked. I was absolutely not informed about this,” she said at the time.

The Islamic Republic of Iran defended its execution of Bahrami by stating that Iran’s war against drug smugglers in fact helped the West.

‘Shocking’ execution

Uri Rosenthal was the Dutch foreign minister at the time of Bahrami’s hanging.

“The problem actually was that Dutch government, I myself, got information from the Iranian ambassador [Kazem Gharib Abadi] in the Hague, at a certain day, that the matter [Bahrami’s case] was still under consideration, and he himself proposed that we would meet again in 10 days,” said Rosenthal, who believes the Iranian ambassador was “mislead by his own government”.

“It was quite a shocking surprise that the next day, we got the message that Madam Bahrami had been hanged,” said Rosenthal.

There was criticism in the Dutch media, and among some politicians, that the Dutch government simply had not done enough.

I have been surprised at how many cases I have found of people of dual nationality that have been imprisoned and only by some coincidence coming to our attention only years after their detention.

by Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

“That has been said, and of course after things have happened I’ve also said in Parliament, that if we would have known beforehand that the Iranian ambassador was misinformed, to the extent that he was, we would have taken different steps,” said Rosenthal.

“I was planning to go to Turkey a few days later and we had already prepared for a possible third country intervention, namely from the Turkish side. In the ten days that were actually the time span indicated by the Iranian authorities, I would have been able to discuss the matter face-to-face with my colleague Mr Davutoglu [Turkish foreign minister], and I knew already that he would be willing to intervene,” said Rosenthal, adding that he would have “stepped up” direct contact with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi if he’d known what the Iranian government’s timeline was for Bahrami’s execution.

In Iranian media, Gharib Abadi has not commented on being misinformed on Bahrami’s case. In fact, he insisted that Bahrami’s legal rights were respected.

Bahrami also had Adrie Tilburg, a Dutch attorney, representing her in the Netherlands. In answering questions about her case, Tilburg does not mince words. “I surely do not think [the] Dutch government did the best efforts to free Ms Bahrami,” Tilburg told Al Jazeera.

“The government underestimated the risk of a death penalty and the execution at short notice. I asked the government to pay an Iranian specialised lawyer to work for Ms Bahrami a few weeks before the execution, but the Minister of Foreign Affairs refused,” said Tilburg. “He did not see the urgency.”

After Bahrami’s death, the Dutch government then “froze” whatever diplomatic relations it had with Iran, with the country’s foreign ministry announcing that all official contact between Iranian and Dutch diplomats and civil servants would be halted.

Rosenthal himself was the subject of criticism by several Dutch politicians. Among them was Alexander Pechtold, who at the time questioned whether the foreign minister had done enough to help save Bahrami.

Neither Pechtold nor his spokesman agreed to be interviewed on Bahrami’s case and the role of Dutch diplomacy in helping to free others like her.

Tilburg said that after Bahrami’s death, parliamentary pressure lead to a change of policy, which means that now, legal aid is available to Dutch citizens facing a serious threat of the death penalty overseas.

As for relations between Iran and the Netherlands, diplomatic relations resumed in February 2011, but whether this has helped others in Bahrami’s situtation remains unknown.

Dutch dilemma

Here’s the thing: At that very time, when the Dutch put diplomacy with Iran on ice, there were at least five other Dutch-Iranians imprisoned in Iran.

The details of the cases were unreported. Al Jazeera contacted the Dutch Foreign Ministry, but were told we had to contact the Dutch Ministry of Security and Justice for information on those cases. Several calls to them were left unanswered.

So below-the-radar are most of these detentions that even a rights group, Amnesty International’s Dutch Section, says it has “not done any research on such cases”.

Still, what became of those five? To put it bluntly, we may never know. There are reports naming two men: Saeed Shah Ghale is said to be serving a “long sentence” while another, Vahik Abrahamian, was arrested along with his wife for “attempting to destroy the Islamic state”. It’s unclear whether these three are among the unnamed five, or whether they are in addition to them.

“It’s almost exactly a decade where on a fairly regular 24-7 basis I’ve followed detentions in Iran and disseminate the information that we gather,” said Ghaemi.

Previous articles in this special series

Out of Sight: Imprisoned in Iran

Forgotten, Canadians remain in Iran’s prisons

“I have been surprised at how many cases I have found of people of dual nationality that have been imprisoned and only by some coincidence coming to our attention only years after their detention. These are the cases that remain unknown, and I’ve had cases where the detainees stay imprisoned for two or three years. And even a group like ours, which does its best to find out about these cases, are not aware of them,” Ghaemi added.

This, of course, is no different than the fate of Iranians with only a single, Iranian nationality.

And yet, when one is sitting in an interrogation room or a cell in Evin Prison, blindfolded and terrified, there’s still the hope that someone in a country that at least says it grants you certain rights might notice that one of its own has fallen down an impossibly bleak hole.

But no country can keep track of such statistics with any degree of accuracy, says Ghaemi. “I cannot put a number on it, but I suspect that for every case that we do find out about, there are several cases that we don’t know about.”

Rosenthal only said that of the five, one was on medical furlough and four were imprisoned as of 2011. He said he could provide no other details, adding that their situation was “a matter of serious concern” and that “there are matters that should be kept within the close channels”.

Indeed, Ghaemi said that that rights groups are often “completely in the dark”.

“There are these are the kinds of cases where families and governments prefer to keep it as quiet as possible. Usually, those families and associates are the first people to alert us and we can verify those facts to report, and I must say that in the case of the Dutch-Iranians, we have indeed never been approached and have never come across any information about them,” said Ghaemi.

Rosenthal points out that things have improved since Bahrami’s execution – if only slightly – with the governments engaging in “consular dialogue”.

“The subject of the discussion is actually the situation of the Dutch bi-nationals in Iran and, on the other side, lifting certain restrictions on Iranian diplomats,” said Rosenthal, adding that he has met Salehi several times and that the topic of imprisoned bi-nationals “was on the agenda”.

Cold comfort

And yet, there are cases that go on for years. Abdullah al-Mansouri, a campaigner for the rights of Arab-Iranians in Ahvaz, where rights activists and separatists have been subjected to crackdowns, left Iran in 1988 and settled in the Netherlands.

He was arrested in May 2006 while on a visit to Syria and sent to Iran to be tried. According to his family, he appeared three times in court without an attorney before being sentenced to death. The order for his execution has since been commuted to a 15-year prison sentence.

His case is the only one known of by the Dutch arm of Amnesty International. “Al-Mansouri was an active member of Amnesty’s local group in Maastricht, who was arrested seven years ago in Syria and after five days extradited to Iran,” said Ruud Bosgraaf, senior press officer for the rights group. “[Mansouri] was sentenced to an unknown amount of years in prison, probably 15 years, after an unfair trial.”

Bosgraaf added: “At the time of the Bahrami affair, Amnesty asked Iran to not to execute her end asked the Dutch government to do its utmost best to save her life.

“Unfortunately, that did not save her life.”

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This article is the third and final piece in a series of articles written with the generous support of the Rockefeller Foundation, and researched during a Practitioner Residency. The first part, focused on the US, and the second part dealt with Canadian diplomatic tactics with Iran.

Source: Al Jazeera