By Edward Carney
It remains unclear what, if any, charges have actually been filed against the American, who reportedly traveled to Iran to visit a woman with whom he had maintained a long-distance relationship, and whom he visited in the country on two previous occasions. In cases of political imprisonment or the reflexive arrest of dual and foreign nationals, Iranian authorities frequently retain people in custody without charge for long periods of time, subjecting them to interrogation and sometimes torture as they attempt to manufacture a case or elicit a false confession.
Persons familiar with the cases have said much the same thing about other instances of Iran’s imprisonment of dual and foreign nationals. The American citizen and Princeton graduate student Xiyue Wang, for instance, is currently serving a 10-year sentence on national security charges that stem from his using Iranian libraries for research into a period of Iranian political history that ended in the early 20th century, long before the 1979 revolution that brought the current regime to power.
Iranian-British dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is serving a five year sentence after having been accused of having a leading role in an “infiltration network” working toward the “soft overthrow” of the Islamic Republic. The charges against her appear to have been based in large part on her former employment by the British Broadcasting Corporation, whose Persian service is banned by the regime and portrayed as pro-Western propaganda. However, Zaghari-Ratcliffe worked only for the charitable wing of the BBC and was never involved in media production or the training of journalists, as Tehran alleges.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe recently undertook a hunger strike along with human rights lawyer and fellow political prisoner Nasrin Sotoudeh, in an effort to demand access to medical treatment that has been denied to them in spite of appeals from the prison infirmary. Their complaint highlights another familiar irregularity in the Iranian justice system, especially as it concerns political prisoners.
Michael White is also reportedly being deprived of access to medical care, and this fact has been repeated with great alarm by family members who have explained that he recovered from cancer shortly before his latest trip to the Islamic Republic. CHRI reports that fellow inmates have provided evidence that that cancer may have returned and is likely going untreated. Meanwhile, another report from the same source points to other instances of prison authorities withholding medical care for persons who had been seriously injured at the time of their initial arrest.
Hassan Shahreza and Vahid Khamoushi, both members of the Sufi mystical sect known as the Gonabadi dervishes, were shot with pellet guns during clashes between security forces and protesters from their order in February 2018. The two men, along with several others, have remained in detention ever since, and Shahreza has been sentenced to seven years in prison and 74 lashes. Through all this time, neither man has received specialized treatment for his injuries, which left pellets scattered throughout their bodies.
CHRI provided a vivid description of some of the consequences of this situation, including various infections that continue to grow worse and occasionally require the inmates to drain pus from their own wounds by cutting into them with any sharp objects they have on hand. As is reported in many cases of deliberate medical deprivation, prison doctors have indicated that transfer to hospital is necessary to address the problems faced by Shahreza and Khamoushi. But when one of the prisoners brought this fact to the attention of a relevant official, he was told in reply, “We shot to kill you, not to treat you.”
Such remarks lend credence to the notion that the mistreatment of certain prisoners in the Islamic Republic is dispensed on the understanding that it will gradually contribute to their death. These deaths are thereby kept off the list of persons subjected to the death penalty in a country that is routinely credited with the highest per-capita rate of executions in the world.
This, of course, contributes to the sense of urgency surrounding efforts to secure freedom for imprisoned dual nationals like Michael White and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. But it also showcases the particular hardships facing persons with citizenship in the Islamic Republic only, who may have fewer opportunities to bring their cases to the attention of foreign advocates or the international community in general.
Yet another CHRI report last week pointed to the cases of Esmail Bakhshi and Sepideh Qoliyan, both of whom were arrested last November in connection with labor strikes at the Haft Tapeh sugarcane plant. Although they were released on bail after about a month, both were rearrested on January 20 as a result of their having spoken publicly about the torture that they experienced during that time.
Qoliyan’s brother was also swept up in the later arrest, according to IranWire, which detailed the violence of the raid on the family’s home. The description of this “brutal attack” serves to call attention to yet another repressive practice that is familiar to the Iranian justice system, and generally unique to persons who live permanently in Iran. Regime authorities have a demonstrated track record of putting pressure on detainees’ families as a means of discouraging public commentary about the case or compelling political prisoners to halt some or all of their activism.
Accordingly, IranWire reported that Qoliyan’s parents had been warned against speaking to the media about the situation, in spite of the fact that international human rights organizations have warned that she and Esmail Bakhshi are at “grave risk” of being tortured all over again. The broader threat of torture at the hands of Iranian authorities was part of the 2019 annual report on the country’s record by Human Rights Watch. As detailed by Iran Human Rights Monitor, that report also reiterates the condemnation of “widespread arrests” that took place between late 2017 and November 2018 and led to an inflated population of political prisoners, including but by no means limited to labor activists, Sufi dervishes, and dual nationals.