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Violent Aftermath: The 2009 Election and Suppression of Dissent in Iran

4.3       Dual Citizens, Foreign Nationals and Embassy Workers are Arrested

The authorities also arrested citizens of Greece, Canada, France and the United States, and targeted Iranians working for the British Embassy in Tehran. These arrestees were generally charged with fomenting a “velvet revolution” sponsored by foreign governments.

Two days after foreign journalists were told their visas would not be extended on June 16, Iason Athanasiadis (known as Fowden), a freelance journalist, was arrested at Tehran airport while attempting to leave the country. Initially approached by only one plainclothes officer who asked him his name and told him that he would not be leaving that day, Fowden was quickly surrounded by a half dozen after he refused to comply.[514]

As he was dragged away while being punched and kicked, a vocal Fowden attracted the attention of a woman to whom he spelled his name and asked that she inform the Greek Embassy. Later, he considered this event to have been instrumental in his fairly quick release, since just days after his arrest, the Greek Foreign Ministry began working on his release.[515]

After being beaten with a club and pepper-sprayed at the police station for trying to make a phone call, Fowden was transferred to Evin. For more than two weeks, an unseen interrogator accused him of espionage in a soundproof room. The Greek government and non-governmental organizations lobbied intensely for his release. Yet the most frustrating time for Fowden was after their efforts seemed to have succeeded:

They took me to the airport; the Greek ambassador met me with a ticket. We started heading towards the gates, then we suddenly veered off to the escalator. … I promptly got re-arrested and spent this very strange night in a windowless room listening to bags thumping through the chutes and listening to departure announcements ... it was the most scary time.[516]

It took another day before further pressure and pleading by the Greek Ambassador resulted in Fowden’s release.

The authorities arrested Maziar Bahari, a Canadian-Iranian journalist, two days later on June 21. A journalist for Newsweek magazine and documentary filmmaker, Bahari was picked up at his family home in Tehran. During his more than 118 days of imprisonment, he was repeatedly beaten, interrogated, and in the end, forced to confess to crimes he did not commit. The authorities accused him of reporting false news, participating in anti-government rallies, and possessing classified documents.[517] On June 30, like other political prisoners, Bahari admitted to the charges against him during a press conference. In this confession, Bahari suggested that he had been led astray by financial inducements and explained how the foreign media was actively promoting a color or “velvet revolution” in Iran.[518] 

Although threatened with assassination if he related his experiences in detention, Bahari later described the circumstances of his arrest, detention, confessions and press conferences.

The thought of resisting had crossed my mind, too. But why? I was a journalist, not a freedom fighter. Political prisoners in Iran were forced to make false confessions all the time. I’d always known they had been coerced, and had sympathized with the victims. Surely others would feel similarly about me. But even now, months later, the experience gnaws at me. My father spent four years in prison under the Shah without asking for mercy. What would he think of his son apologizing to the Supreme Leader after eight days?[519]

The day before his first confessional news conference, Bahari was dragged—blindfolded—by his usual interrogator to meet a person who threatened him with a prolonged investigation during which he would be imprisoned and tortured before possibly being executed. He was then asked if he was instead interested in explaining that a “velvet revolution” was staged by foreigners and corrupt elites using western media and that this attempt was thwarted by the vigilant authorities of the Islamic Republic.[520]

He did as he was told, but tried to remain vague and ironically detached. Thus, his next interrogation session began with a beating. These beatings continued for the next three months, a period that covers August 1, the day the prosecution presented its first indictment to the court. That day, his interrogator took Bahari—without telling him where or why—to the court for his second public confession.[521] He was instructed to be more specific, name names, implicate reformists and link them to foreign media. Bahari failed to provide a satisfactory confession.

When we finished, I knew what awaited me back in Evin. In the interrogation room [he] beat me without saying a word. He didn’t have to explain. [522]

During his imprisonment, Bahari called his mother, Molouk Bahari, from prison to reassure her. The eighty-three-year-old had lost two children since 2007 and was tired of calamity.[523] Throughout his detention, his wife pleaded for his release from London. Bahari was released on October 17 after posting 300 million Tomans [US$ 300,000] bail. A few days later, he was allowed to leave Iran and join his wife in the London hospital where she gave birth.[524]

On the same day Bahari was arrested, Manouchehr Mottaki, the foreign minister of Iran, presented a scenario that not only blamed foreign journalists, but targeted Britain as the source of the opposition movement:

The first path they took was boycotting the election and persuading the public not to participate in it … The second approach of the English was to send [agents disguised as] travelers who came with specific intelligence and security objectives. The numbers of these travelers increased so much that the small regular plane used between Tehran and London had to be replaced with a Boeing 747 … It is time [for the English] to forget the saying: ‘The sun doesn’t shine unless it shines for the Empire, and the sun never sets unless it sets for the British Empire.’[525]

Security forces arrested Hossein Rassam and eight of his co-workers at the British Embassy in Tehran. They were detained on June 27 and accused of playing an important role in the disturbances after the election.[526] Two days later, Hassan Qashqavi, spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, announced that five of the nine had been released and that the rest were undergoing interrogations. Qolam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, the Minister of Intelligence, continued to insist that the British Embassy “under the cover of domestic agents, sent individuals among the rioters and disseminated information among both the rioters and the crowds at large.” [527] His evidence was that embassy employees were seen among the crowds in Tehran.[528] 

Another two days whittled the number of “domestic agents” in custody down to two.[529] Only one person remained accused of the crimes listed by the foreign and intelligence ministries.[530] This reality did not stop Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati from claiming at a Friday Sermon that several of the Iranian employees of the British Embassy in Tehran would be prosecuted for their actions. Jannati asked:

According to [information found on] a website at the British Foreign Ministry, [the Ministry] had announced [for months] that there may be unrest following the Iranian elections, and we must warn our subjects to be careful. What are these predictions all about?[531]

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Sexual Violence, Death Penalty, Political Killings, Executions, Torture, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment, Punishment, Personal Liberty, Arbitrary Detention, Travel Restrictions, Due Process, Right to an Attorney, Illegal Search and Seizure, Free Speech, Right to Protest, Protests, Political Freedom, Equality Before the Law, Discrimination, Reports