On Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that a US District Court judge in Washington DC had ordered Iran to pay 63.5 million dollars to Amir Hekmati, one of four American citizens who were released from the Islamic Republic of Iran in January of last year, in a prisoner exchange that coincided with the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The judgment brings renewed attention to the larger issue of Iran’s attacks on dual nationals and persons with notable connections to Western entities – an issue that certainly remains of serious concern to this day.
Currently, at least four American nationals are being held in the Islamic Republic, having been arrested after the other four were released. These arrests fly in the face of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s assurances that under his administration dual nationals would not face legal consequences for returning to their country of origin. As with his fellow American prisoners both before and after his release, the case against Amir Hekmati was never substantiated, leading many human rights advocates to conclude that such arrests were simply acts of defiance against Western governments.
Hekmati, a former US Marine, was taken into custody while in Iran to visit family, particularly his ailing mother. He was accused of espionage and initially sentenced to death, before this sentence was overturned and replaced with a 10 year prison sentence, of which he served more than four years before being released in the prisoner swap.
The case that Hekmati filed against the government of Iran detailed the torture and maltreatment that he was subjected to during his period of detention. It noted that he had virtually no contact with the outside world for a period of 17 months, and was subjected to lashings on the bottoms of his feet, jolts to his kidneys with a stun gun, stress positions, routine beatings, and the forced ingestion of drugs, leading to painful withdrawal symptoms. Court documents also declare that the effects of this torture continued after his return to the United States.
It is unclear whether Hekmati will ever gain access to any of the 63.5 million dollars the Iranians have been ordered to pay. The judgment in the case was made by default in response to Tehran’s refusal to respond to the suit or send a representative to defend the government in court. In this way it is similar to other judgments that have been passed against the Iranian regime for such things as its role in sponsoring terrorist groups that have killed and wounded American citizens.
In some of these cases, money for the plaintiffs have been recouped from frozen Iranian assets, but an order for the seizure of those assets is a separate matter, and is dependent on the availability of recoverable assets, which is currently diminished in the wake of the lifting of sanctions specified in the nuclear agreement. Critics of the Obama White House and its handling of the Hekmati case have alleged that a 400 million dollar payment as part of a debt resettlement agreement was also part of the January 2016 prisoner swap, making it a de facto cash payment for American hostages.
Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, has so far failed to actually secure the release of any of the Americans currently in detention. But he has assumed a distinctly assertive posture on the issue, demanding the unconditional release of all wrongfully imprisoned American nationals.
Not Just U.S. Nationals
Of course, the unjust detention of dual nationals is by no means limited to Americans. And arguably anemic responses to these detentions were not confined to the Obama administration. The British government, for instance, has been widely criticized by advocates for the Iranian-British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was arrested in April, of last year at the end of a visit to her home country during which she was accompanied by her then 22-month-old daughter Garbiella. British government officials have never spoken out publicly to call for the woman’s release following her five year sentence for undisclosed “national security charges.”
During Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s arrest, her daughter’s British passport was confiscated and she was placed in the care of her Iranian grandparents. Now three years old, Gabriella has lost most of her English language skills, has only been able to see her mother once a week, and has only been able to communicate with her father by telephone and computer.
Gabriella’s father and Nazanin’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, spoke out on his wife’s situation in a recent interview with the Center for Human Rights in Iran. In it, he points out that prison authorities rejected doctors’ recommendations that Nazanin be arrested for emerging neurological problems that were evidently related to the harsh conditions of her imprisonment. The withholding of medical treatment is a common tactic employed to put additional pressure on political prisoners.
Threats against family members are also familiar in such cases, and Ratcliffe indicated that his wife’s family may have come under pressure from Iranian authorities to resist speaking to the press or to human rights activists on Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s situation. Additionally, her first Iranian attorney has already faced prosecution for some of the contents of her legal defense.
Ratcliffe’s accounts of his telephone conversations with his wife indicate that intelligence agents have already made efforts to use her family as leverage against her, or as a source of psychological torture. Early in her detention, when phone calls were less frequent, authorities reportedly told her that her husband had abandoned her and was endeavoring to take Gabriella away from her.
This track record, both in Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case and in the overall operation of the Iranian criminal justice system, highlights the potential danger of Gabriella’s being stranded in the Islamic Republic. The CHRI’s interview with her husband came at about the same time that informed sources reported Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been denied temporary release to visit her daughter, despite previous assurances that this would be granted.
The request was ultimately blocked, in defiance of the law, by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which, along with the Intelligence Ministry, has been identified as the main driving force behind the crackdown on dual nationals, especially in the aftermath of the nuclear agreement. This crackdown has typically been depicted as a reaction to the widespread expectation of a softening of tensions between Tehran and the West, something that Zaghari-Ratcliffe herself was reportedly optimistic about in the months before her arrest.
War on Western Media
Two specific features of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s biography have been highlighted, apart from her British citizenship, in explaining the Iranian government’s actions against her. One is her current career as an employee of the Thomson Reuters charitable organization, and the other is her former work for BBC Media Action. This in turn reflects the fact that Iranian attacks on Western entities have not been limited to individual dual nationals but have also included entire media outlets and businesses.
Although the Iranian government would not present itself in Washington, DC to answer the charges brought by Amir Hekmati, it has reached beyond its own borders to impose financial penalties on 152 staff members and contributors to the BBC’s Persian service, which is banned inside Iran but is nevertheless accessed by many Iranians using illegal satellite television receivers and online circumvention tools.
In August, a court order froze the assets of the 152 individuals, banned them from all financial transactions in Iran, and warned that if they returned to Iran they would not be permitted to leave again. On Monday, IranWire posted a legal analysis of this order and found that it was unlawful but also not out of keeping with the ordinary practice of the Iranian authorities, who have a habit of “defying the law to punish and silence journalists and activists.”
The crackdown on BBC contributors has also turned out to be another case study in the use of Western nationals’ families as a source of pressure. Reporters Without Borders reported upon this fact last month, noting that both the financial penalties and the family threats are among “the many methods use by the Iranian authorities since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.”
Naturally, the report indicated that while the BBC Persian case has marked a particular upsurge in such threats, there have been numerous such threats surrounding it, directed at affiliates of Radio Farda, Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, and others. In fact, Reporters Without Borders identified at least 50 foreign-based journalists who had apparently been threatened by persons affiliated with Iranian Intelligence in the past year. At least 16 of them had been threatened with death.
The report also cites several specific instances of families being threatened or harassed, including that of Roholah Zam, the founder of the Amadnews website. “Two of his sisters and his brother-in-law were detained for four months last year, and his youngest brother, Mohamad Milad Zam, was arrested at home on 26 August and was taken to an unknown location.,” the report states, before going on to note that 10 journalists had been arrested for collaborating with Amadnews between March and August.
One of the journalists quoted in the piece admitted that such threats made it difficult for him to write freely. This fact speaks to the importance of anonymous communication in the Islamic Republic – something that is potentially facilitated by social media platforms. This is something that the authorities have sought to target through other means, but some of these are about as unlikely to be successful as the Islamic Republic is to hand over 63.5 million dollars to Amir Hekmati.
Last week, the Associated Press reported that Iranian prosecutors had filed suit against Pavel Durov, the CEO of Telegram, a supposedly secure social media platform that is used by millions of Iranians and that has become a notable resource for the domestic activist community. The Iranians claimed that their request for Telegram to subject to censorship was motivated by the presence of extremist propaganda and child pornography. But Durov countered that these contents are already banned on the platform, and that the lawsuit is only the latest in a long series of back-and-forth communications between Telegram and the Iranian regime, which has struggled to suppress free speech on the platform.
Of course, this has not been for lack of trying. Various arrests have been made of administrators for popular Telegram groups, and Iran Human Rights Monitor reported last week that cyber police in Hormozgan claimed to have identified and arrested an 18-year-old girl who had made anonymous posts on Telegram advertising dance classes for girls, which she held in her home illegally.
But even assuming that the claim in this case is accurate, the fact remains that Telegram is more secure than its predecessors, including Twitter and Facebook, which were and remain popular in Iran despite being banned. Tech-savvy Iranians routinely defy these bans through the use of virtual proxy networks, and this is something that regime authorities have also sought to take aim at, though without much success.
In mid-September, Iranian Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi said via Iranian state media that “using circumvention tools is illegal.” But the Center for Human Rights in Iran quickly debunked this claim, noting that the Islamic Republic has laws against malicious hacking but not circumvention.
Of course, this does not mean that persons who use such tools will not be punished for it, as suggested by the ways in which authorities have defied the laws to put additional pressure on Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the BBC journalists, and others.
It is also worth noting that the regime has a demonstrated history of selectively applying the law for the sake of its own enrichment, as well as for political ends. On Monday, CHRI reported that six administrators had been arrested for running a pirate movie website, not because of its theft of intellectual property but rather because it was competing against state-affiliated websites that were profiting off of the same stolen Western films.
This goes to show that even though the Iranian government has effectively declared war on freely disseminated Western media, it is willing to tolerate some such media to the extent that it can control and profit from its release.