Iran TerrorismIranian embassy in Canberra 'spying on activist students'

Iranian embassy in Canberra ‘spying on activist students’

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ImageThe Australian: The Iranian embassy in Canberra has been accused of spying on Iranian democracy activists in Australia, collecting intelligence on their activities and reporting back to Tehran, where critics of the regime can face severe punishment. The Australian

Sally Neighbour

ImageTHE Iranian embassy in Canberra has been accused of spying on Iranian democracy activists in Australia, collecting intelligence on their activities and reporting back to Tehran, where critics of the regime can face severe punishment.

Pro-democracy campaigners in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra say the embassy monitors articles and protests by political activists and films and photographs those who attend anti-regime rallies and reports back on their activities.

One activist, a 24-year-old student at Melbourne's Monash University, recently learned she had been barred from returning to Iran after the government was informed of her attendance at pro-democracy rallies in Australia and articles she had written that were critical of the Ahmadinejad regime.

A spokesman for pro-democracy group Iran Solidarity Melbourne, Afshin Nikouseresht, said student activists were harassed and abused on campus by pro-regime students whom they suspected of working for the Iranian government. Mr Nikouseresht said one dissident had received anonymous death threats and the students held "well-founded fears" for their future as a result.

Other activists said that since last year's anti-regime uprising prompted pro-democracy rallies in Australia, Tehran had dispatched spies to keep tabs on activity in Australia. They said the spies were students on Iranian government scholarships who disrupted pro-democracy meetings, tore down posters and threatened anti-government campaigners.

A journalism student at Monash University named Asal, who asked that her surname not be used to protect her family, has attended protest rallies and written articles on Persian-language websites critical of the regime since arriving in Australia in 2008.

She said Iranian authorities recently visited her father in Tehran to inform him that she would be banned from returning to Iran because of her political activities in Australia.

"They asked him: `What is she doing in Australia? How did she leave Iran?' " Asal told The Australian. "It was really a big shock. I was sure it would be easy to go back, so it was really a shock." Activists say they have seen diplomatic staff filming and photographing protesters who attend rallies outside the embassy in Canberra. The Iranian embassy did not respond to requests from The Australian for comment.

The students' allegations of harassment come amid growing concern within Australian security services over the activities of Iranian government-backed militants in Australia.

An ASIO assessment included in the federal government's recent counter-terrorism white paper drew attention to the presence in Australia of the Lebanese Hezbollah External Security Organisation (ESO), an Iranian-sponsored group described on the federal government's national security website as "among the best-organised terrorist networks in the world".

ASIO pinpointed ESO as a group "with a long history of engaging in terrorist acts", whose supporters might see Australia as "a suitable or convenient location for an attack on their enemies".

Intelligence agencies have been aware of ESO's presence in Australia since the 1990s, when a Sydney man hosted a visit to Australia by several ESO officials. ASIO believed ESO was recruiting local supporters to assist with logistical tasks such as the purchase of "dual-use technology" for Iran's weapons programs.

An Iranian-born cleric based in Sydney, Mansour Leghaei, is due to be deported from Australia later this month after being branded a security risk by ASIO and accused of "acts of foreign interference".

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