Iran impasse spells agony for families of ‘hostages’

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Paris (AFP) – The decline of contacts between Iran and the West due to the crackdown on the protest movement has increased the anxiety and uncertainty of families held by their beloved Islamic republic.

Iran is accused of detaining more than two dozen foreign nationals, some for years, as part of a deliberate “hostage diplomacy” strategy aimed at securing concessions from the West.

In the past, many foreign passport holders eventually won their release from Iranian prisons, often after arguably secret negotiations in which Iranians were released abroad or had their assets frozen in return.

But now there is little room for such a deal, as negotiations to revive the 2015 deal on Iran’s nuclear program stall and Iranian ambassadors are regularly summoned across Europe over pressure to protest.

Returning families, mostly of Iranian descent, oscillate between admiration for the “Woman, life, freedom” protests and agonizing uncertainty about the fate of their relatives.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was born on January 9, 2023 in the city of Qom.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was born on January 9, 2023 in the city of Qom. © – / KHAMENEI.IR/AFP/File

One of those arrested is Nahid Taghavi, a 68-year-old German-Iranian national who was arrested in October 2020 and sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2021 on national security charges denied by his family. He was sentenced to four months in prison last year for poor health, but was ordered back to Evin prison in Tehran in November.

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“As an Iranian living abroad, I fully support the protests. But on a personal level, I have no idea what will happen to Nahid in the months and years to come,” said his daughter Mariam Claren, who led the campaign. He told AFP he was released.

“Relations between Iran and Germany are deteriorating. There has been no action in the cases of my mother or other dual nationals.”

The Eiffel Tower in Paris lights up this week in solidarity with the Iranian protests
The Eiffel Tower in Paris lights up this week in solidarity with the Iranian protests © Ludovic MARIN / AFP

“But I don’t want to limit it to our personal fate. Bigger things are happening at the protests.”

American, French, British, German, Austrian and Swedish nationals are among those held in similar conditions, and the number of detainees is increasing.

‘Extraordinary product’

Siamak Namazi, a US citizen of Iranian descent who was arrested in October 2015, began a seven-day hunger strike this week in an effort to give greater priority to President Joe Biden’s case.

“Nothing I say can convey the agony of hardening myself into this soul-crushing numbness and lawlessness,” Namazi said in a statement issued by his American lawyers.

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“How can one describe what it feels like to be stripped of your humanity and instead be treated as an overpriced item?”

German Jamshid Sharmahd, whose family says he was kidnapped by Iranian security forces in the Gulf in 2020, is also facing the death penalty on terrorism charges.
German Jamshid Sharmahd, whose family says he was kidnapped by Iranian security forces in the Gulf in 2020, is also facing the death penalty on terrorism charges. © Koosha MAHSHID FALAHI / MIZAN NEWS AGENCY/AFP

Bernard Phelan, an Irish-French travel consultant and one of seven French citizens detained in Iran, is also going on a hunger strike. He was arrested in October.

According to his sister, Caroline Masse-Phelan, Phelan has been refusing to eat since the beginning of the year and is now refusing water.

He told AFP that the hunger and thirst strikes put his life in danger, but “he is doing it because he can’t take it anymore”. “These are the only weapons,” he added.

‘Higher price for release’

The release of US basketball star Brittney Griner, who was jailed on a petty drug possession charge, by Russia last month in exchange for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death”, underscored the price paid by Western governments. to pay for the release of its citizens.

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The death penalty, already used in four protest-related cases, has already cast a shadow over the two foreign nationals after the execution last weekend of Iranian-British citizen and former defense ministry official Alireza Akbari on espionage charges.

Blandine Briere, who was arrested in May 2020 before her brother Benjamin Briere was sentenced to eight years in prison for espionage.
“My brother has come to the end of his power,” says Blandine Briere, who was arrested in May 2020 before his brother Benjamin Briere was sentenced to eight years in prison for espionage. © – / BY FAMILY’S PERMISSION/AFP/File

Ahmadreza Djalali, a Swedish-Iranian dual national, has been imprisoned since 2016 and was sentenced to death the following year on espionage charges, which her family vehemently denied.

German Jamshid Sharmahd, whose family says he was kidnapped by Iranian security forces in the Gulf in 2020, is also facing the death penalty on terrorism charges. The trial was said to have ended last week, but the family is still unaware of the verdict.

Pointing out that the ties between European capitals and Tehran have not been broken, Jason Brodsky, policy director of the United States-based United Against Nuclear Iran group, said that even though nuclear diplomacy has now stopped, efforts to free the detainees should continue.

“But the complexity is that Iranians are likely to charge a higher price for the release of dual nationals, as opposed to those without Iranian citizenship – possibly in the form of the release of frozen assets or convicted terrorists or criminals,” he said. .

Tehran, the capital of Iran, with the snow-capped Alborz mountain range in the background, January 7, 2023
Tehran, the capital of Iran, with the snow-capped Alborz mountain range in the background, January 7, 2023 © ATTA EDGE / AFP/File

But in the absence of the slightest tangible sign of a breakthrough, the suffering for families is sometimes overwhelming.

“My brother couldn’t take it anymore,” Blandine Briere, a French national, was arrested in May 2020 before her brother, Benjamin Briere, was sentenced to eight years in prison for espionage, told AFP.

He no longer hides behind saying ‘I’m fine’ because the detention conditions are inhuman and unhealthy.” “We are concerned about your health”

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