A group of United Nations human rights experts issued a fresh appeal to the Islamic Republic of Iran on Thursday, in response to the latest information about the condition of political prisoner and Iranian-Swedish dual national Ahmadreza Djalali. The medical researcher from Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute has been detained in the Islamic Republic since 2016 when he visited his native country for an academic conference. In 2017 he was sentenced to death on spurious charges of espionage, and last November he was moved into solitary confinement in preparation for his execution, though authorities later transferred him again and said the implementation of his sentence had been delayed indefinitely.
This inconsistency and ill-treatment lends additional credence to the widespread assumption that Djalali is being held hostage as a potential bargaining chip in dealings with Western adversaries. His November transfer coincided very closely with the start of four Iranian operatives’ trial in Belgium, another country to which Djalali has ties through past employment. Iranian authorities had previously shown substantial commitment to preventing the prosecution or imprisonment of the principal defendant, an Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi, and they may have believed it would be possible to secure his release by threatening Djalali.
That effort seemingly backfired, with Djalali’s release from solitary confinement coming after Belgian authorities teased the possibility of severing relations with their Iranian counterparts as punishment for the killing of a high-profile Western national. Although this counter-pressure may have caused the Iranian judiciary to back down from the immediate threat, it did not prevent them from keeping Djalali in harsh conditions and subjecting him to a more protracted threat, with a greater claim to plausible deniability in the event of his death.
Since having his execution delayed, Djalali has still been kept largely isolated, without access to phone calls or visits from family members, attorneys, or other supporters. As is common with political prisoners and others whom authorities with to subject to additional pressure, Djalali has also been denied access to medical care, even as preexisting health conditions worsened. The statement from UN experts noted that this situation has led to dramatic and life threatening weight loss for the 49-year old.
The statement also revealed that Djalali’s condition has been exacerbated not only through neglect but also through deliberate, sustained pressure from prison authorities. Among other things, he has been subjected to bright lights and noise at all hours, with the goal of depriving him of sleep. “We are shocked and distressed by the cruel mistreatment of Mr. Djalali,” said the UN experts in a statement that also highlighted the long history of similar mistreatment and its apparent role in securing the prisoner’s conviction.
No clear explanation was given for Djalali’s arrest, but after some time in detention he was accused of having collaborated with the government of Israel by gathering information that aided in the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. Those allegations have never been publicly substantiated, and persons familiar with the case indicate that his prosecution relied almost exclusively on a forced confession that was extracted via torture.
Such accounts are commonplace in instances of political imprisonment in Iran, and some have become grounds for large-scale international campaigns on the detainee’s behalf. However, these rarely lead to a favorable outcome, as was made clear last September with the execution of 27-year-old wrestling champion Navid Afkari. After participating in protests in 2018, Afkari was arrested alongside his brothers, all of whom were put under pressure to confess or implicate one another in the killing of a security guard near the site of the protests. Surveillance video later revealed that it was likely impossible for Afkari to have committed the crime, and this fact was repeated in countless statements from Western authorities and non-government organizations like Amnesty International.
Nonetheless, the judiciary went forward with the execution as planned, in a gesture that many interpreted as a warning to other participants in protests inspired by a nationwide anti-government uprising at the beginning of 2018. Critical reactions to the case included references to a number of prior instances of authorities targeting professional athletes and other high-profile individuals, as part of an effort to intimidate the general population.
Cases like Djalali’s serve a similar purpose with respect to favorable interaction with institutions, citizens, or representatives of Tehran’s Western adversaries. By his own account, Iranian authorities pressured the professional academic to prove his higher loyalty to the Islamic Republic by agreeing to act as a spy upon returning to his home in Sweden. Only when he refused did those authorities begin to put forth the argument that Djalali was actually loyal to “hostile states” and must therefore be willing to commit espionage against the regime but not on its behalf.
Such paper-thin justifications for national security charges are commonplace in the Islamic Republic, if only because they provide the regime with bargaining chips that have proven to pay off in various ways. Even as Djalali was being threatened with execution, Iranian authorities were finalizing the release of an Australian-British academic, Kylie-Moore Gilbert, in return for the release of three Iranians convicted of attempting a terrorist attack in Thailand. Earlier this month, Moore-Gilbert spoke publicly about her case and revealed that Tehran had tried to recruit her as a spy as well.
The Iranian judiciary’s extremely lax standards of prosecution make it remarkably easy for authorities to replace such bargaining chips and prospective intelligence assets whenever a prisoner swap is completed. Just this week, it was reported that a French tourist by the name of Benjamin Briere had been charged with “espionage” and “propaganda against the state” roughly 10 months after he was arrested for photographing the region he was visiting. The charge of propaganda stems solely from a social media post in which he asked why the hijab is mandatory for women in Iran but not in surrounding countries.
Briere’s arrest came about two months after the release of Roland Marchal, another Frenchman who was arrested on the basis of his relationship with an Iranian-French dual national and fellow academic, Fariba Adelkhah. Marchal, too, was the object of a prisoner swap, but Adelkhah remains in Iran, less than two years into a five year sentence. She is one of at least 13 persons with ties to Western nations who are currently detained in the Islamic Republic, but given the often secretive nature of proceedings in Iranian courts, the real number could be much higher.