April 24, 2021 marked five years since Dr. Ahmadreza Djalali, a Swedish-Iranian emergency disaster medicine specialist, was arrested in Tehran on falsified espionage charges.
Djalali had been visiting Iran at the official invitation of Tehran University to participate in a series of academic workshops. Although Djalali had safely traveled to Iran in the past to work with various state organizations, on April 24, 2016, he was apprehended and detained by agents of the Iranian intelligence agency.
Iranian officials claim that Djalali was arrested and later sentenced to death for sharing classified information with Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency in a plot to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists; however, the Iranian government has yet to substantiate these claims, and Djalali has publicly disputed the accusations. In a 2017 letter smuggled out of prison, Djalali said he was being held solely because he had refused to use his academic ties in European institutions to spy for the Iranian intelligence ministry on EU member states.
After his arrest, Djalali was jailed without trial in Tehran’s Evin Prison. He was denied access to legal counsel, placed in solitary confinement, and interrogated for seven months. Even after he was moved to the prison’s general ward, the Islamic Revolutionary Court continued to block every attempt he made to obtain legal representation, and Djalali has since been returned to solitary confinement.
UN experts, including numerous special rapporteurs on human rights, extrajudicial executions, and torture, have repeatedly urged Iranian authorities to release Djalali, saying the charges against him were based on forced confessions extracted under torture. On March 18, they called for his immediate release from custody due to the critical condition of his health and reminded the Iranian authorities that their actions violate Iran’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. They added that Djalali’s prolonged solitary confinement is emblematic of the regime’s use of torture to force confessions, despite restrictions on solitary confinement under domestic law.
The Charges Against Djalali
Djalali was officially charged with “collaborating with enemy states” and “spreading corruption on earth.” Amnesty International maintains that the latter charge violates the principles of legal certainty and precision foundational to criminal law.
According to Djalali’s employer, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), the charges may be related to Djalali’s international contacts: VUB students and faculty come from all over the world, including the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Although Djalali retained his Iranian citizenship, he had been living in the European Union since moving to Sweden in 2009 to complete his PhD in emergency disaster medicine. He and his family later moved to Italy, where he completed a postdoctoral degree, returning to Sweden in 2015. At the time of his arrest, Djalali was a professor at VUB and a scientist at the Research Center in Emergency and Disaster Medicine (CRIMEDIN) run by the University of Eastern Piedmont in Novara, Italy. Although he was a Swedish resident at the time of his detention in Tehran, Djalali was granted citizenship in 2018, making him a Swedish-Iranian dual citizen.
On January 30, 2017, Djalali’s trial began in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Court. On the first day of the trial, Judge Abolqassem Salavati reportedly announced, “Your sentence is death and it won’t change at the end of the trial.” Four days later, on February 3, Djalali was indeed sentenced to death, his execution scheduled to take place just two weeks later.
UN human rights experts have criticized the trial, saying it “was marred by numerous reports of due process and fair trial violations, including incommunicado detention, denial of access to a lawyer, and forced confession.” By Djalali’s own account, his confession was coerced, ceded only after prolonged solitary confinement and threats to his family members in Sweden and Iran. This “confession” was broadcast on Iranian state television before his trial, a violation of Djalali’s right to presumed innocence according to Amnesty International.
Following his 2017 death sentence, however, Djalali was never transferred to Raja’i Shahr jail, where he would have awaited execution. Instead, Djalali has remained in Tehran’s Evin Prison, where, since November 2020, he has had no communication with the outside world.
Treatment in Prison
On Christmas Day of his first year in prison, Djalali began one of several hunger strikes: his wife explained that “if they are going to execute him he prefers to die under hunger strike.” Due to these hunger strikes and other mistreatment he has experienced while in prison, Djalali has reportedly lost 8–9 kg (17–20 lbs). He is also “suffering from stomach pain, has difficulty breathing, and has a resting heartbeat as low as 40 beats per minute,” according to the Scholars at Risk Network.
Despite his rapidly deteriorating health, Djalali has been held in solitary confinement for over one hundred days, with “prison officials shining bright lights in his small cell 24 hours a day to deprive him of sleep”—circumstances UN human rights experts have described as “truly horrific.”
The urgency of Djalali’s situation can hardly be overstated. In February 2019, his wife said the Iranian authorities had prevented him from seeing cancer and blood specialists after he received test results indicating he might have leukemia. Thus, even if Djalali is not executed, the Center for Human Rights in Iran warns that without proper medical care, “he may soon die in detention.”
Potential Geopolitical Motivations
Geopolitical factors seem to be a major factor in Djalali’s continued imprisonment, especially given his status as a dual national. VUB scholars Caroline Pauwels and Alexander Mattelaer explain that Djalali’s dual citizenship puts him in a precarious position, warning that the European Union “cannot allow Djalali, like other dual citizens before him, to be reduced to mere pawns in a game of geopolitical chess.” They also point out that Djalali’s imminent execution was publicized by the Iranian regime, “perhaps not coincidentally, just as a Belgian court opened a trial against four Iranian nationals suspected of plotting a terrorist attack on an Iranian opposition rally in Paris.”
Pauwels and Mattelaer are referring to the trial of Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat formerly stationed in Vienna. Assadi is accused of providing explosives to a Belgian couple planning to bomb a rally of Iranian dissidents near Paris in 2018. Though European law enforcement preempted the plot, Belgian prosecutors are seeking a twenty-year prison sentence for Assadi, who has claimed diplomatic immunity and refuses to appear in court. According to journalist David M. Herszenhorn, European law enforcement has “amassed reams of detailed evidence of the plot” by Assadi and his co-conspirators. Thus, Assadi’s case in Belgium stands in sharp contrast to Djalali’s in Iran, in which a much harsher sentence was imposed on the basis of much less evidence.
On November 24, 2020, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde tweeted that she had spoken with her Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, about Djalali’s case, adding that “Sweden condemns the death penalty and works to ensure that the verdict against Djalali is not enforced.” Zarif responded that “Iran’s judiciary is independent and any meddling in the issuance or execution of judicial rulings is unacceptable.” This seems to have been a warning not only to Sweden but also to the international community at large not to encroach on what the Iranian regime considers to be its domestic issues.
The apparent intertwining of Djalali and Assadi’s cases, however, calls such claims of Iranian judicial independence into question. Pauwels and Mattelaer remark that the Iranian regime “appears to be seeking to instrumentalize the fate of an EU citizen in an effort to put pressure on judicial proceedings in Europe.” They point out that this puts the Belgian court in the difficult position of trying to pass an independent verdict on Assadi’s case while bearing the knowledge that any ruling could potentially “mean the difference between life and death” for Djalali in Iran. Therefore, Pauwels and Mattelaer contend that “it is unreasonable for Tehran to expect the EU not to interfere in its internal affairs while it is disregarding the rights of an EU citizen and putting pressure on the rule of law in EU member countries.”
A Disturbing Pattern
Djalali’s case is consistent with a broader trend in which Iranian dual nationals are arrested on espionage charges with little evidentiary basis and detained in Iran. Rights activists have previously accused the regime of jailing dual nationals to win concessions from other countries, but Iranian officials have dismissed these accusations, claiming that Iran’s judicial system is fair.
Iran’s denial would be more tenable if Djalali’s circumstances were unique; however, this is not the case. In fact, Djalali was just one of several individuals identified in a 2018 resolution of the European Parliament concerning imprisoned EU-Iranian dual nationals in Iran. The others are Austrian-Iranian businessman Kamran Ghaderi, British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and British-Iranian academic Abbas Edalat, who was arrested in 2018 but has since been allowed to return to the United Kingdom. This list is far from exhaustive, and while the exact number of people with dual citizenship currently being detained in Iran is unknown given the sensitive nature of this information, other individuals include American-Iranian father and son Baquer and Siamak Namazi, French-Iranian anthropologist Fariba Adelkhah, and American-British-Iranian conservationist Morad Tahbaz, whose Canadian-Iranian colleague Kavous Seyed-Emami died in custody in Iran in 2018 in questionable circumstances.
Iran’s practice of arresting dual nationals is further complicated by the fact that Iran does not legally recognize dual citizenship, which, according to the 2018 EU Parliament resolution, “limits the access of foreign embassies to their citizens detained in the country, and the access of the detainees to consular protection.”
More troubling still is the uptick in the Iranian regime’s hostage diplomacy practices in recent years. Families Alliance, a group of former Iranian captives and relatives of former and current prisoners, says that this so-called state hostage-taking typically involves using the Iranian judicial system “to convict someone on spurious charges and then linking their release to the resolution of another diplomatic dispute.” The result, as Richard Ratcliffe explains, is that “innocent people [are] held for leverage in disputes between states.”
For instance, Ratcliffe’s wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual citizen, was arrested on espionage charges in 2016. She was initially sentenced to five years in prison, but after serving her sentence, she was confronted with a new set of charges her husband describes as “not particularly relevant, since the point of reviving this case … was simply to hold Nazanin for leverage [in] negotiations with the UK.”
Indeed, when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case in March, Rouhani reportedly raised the issue of a £387m debt owed to Iran by Britain related to a 1970s arms deal, which the British government maintains it cannot pay due to sanctions on Iran. As journalist Patrick Wintour points out, Rouhani’s mention of the debt in this context brings to mind similar circumstances in 2016, when “[t]he US had paid a parallel $1.7bn debt over a cancelled arms deal [...] at the same [time] as a prisoner swap the US insisted was unrelated.”
Djalali’s Ongoing Struggle
While Djalali’s imprisonment provides further evidence of a troubling trend in Iran’s geopolitical strategy, the individuals who have been unjustly detained in Iran are more than “pawn[s] in a game of geopolitical chess.” Djalali, for his part, is a brilliant scholar, a loving husband and father, and above all, a human being. This means that his situation remains urgent and relevant, irrespective of the complexities of international politics.
Although it is still unclear what the outcome of his case will be, concerned citizens, human rights groups, and governments are continuing to fight for Djalali. A petition calling for his release was launched in 2018 and has since received 300,000 signatures. Amnesty International launched a campaign in support of Djalali in November and demanded that the Iranian regime nullify his capital punishment sentence. Also in November, 150 Nobel prize laureates sent a letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei expressing concern about their fellow scholar’s situation. In March, a group of independent UN human rights experts called on the Iranian regime to immediately release Djalali, the latest in a series of similar efforts by UN officials.
These efforts have met with some success, as Djalali was granted a reprieve in December, but this measure is only temporary. The international community must continue to advocate for Djalali and others like him who have been detained in Iran without due process. This message is most eloquently conveyed by Djalali himself, in a letter he wrote from prison in August 2017: “I appreciate all my colleagues, faculties of the universities, human rights organizations and activists, governments, reporters, media, people … from around the world that have supported me and helped my family. I ask them to please continue your support and helpful actions until I am released or dead.”
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