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Advocates for Missing Iranians Decide to Go Public with Struggle

After years of low-profile pressure led nowhere, families and advocates of 11 missing Iranian Jews have gone public with criticism of Iran.

The 11, including several teenagers, reportedly disappeared in separate groups from 1994 to 1997 while trying to flee illegally over the Iran-Pakistan border.

“The families have lost patience, and we’ve lost hope that those responsible elements in Iran will release these prisoners voluntarily,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary-general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation. “We are therefore in need of international support.”

Kermanian said his Los Angeles-based group would try to build a coalition that would include other Jewish organizations, human-rights watchdogs, the United Nations and foreign governments to exert pressure on Iran’s ruling mullahs.

According to the Iranian American Jewish Federation’s latest information, Kermanian said, the 11 men were spotted alive earlier this year in a Tehran prison.

Iran’s representation in the United States, the Iranian Mission to the United Nations, did not return a call seeking comment.

The missing Jews have been identified as Babak Shaoulin Tehrani, who would now be 28, and Shaheen Nikkhou, 29, both of Tehran, who left together and went missing along with their Muslim smuggler, Atat Mohamad Rigi, in May 1994.

Behzad Salary, 30, and Farhad Ezzati, 31, both of Kermanshah, traveled together and disappeared Sept. 21, 1994.

Homayoon Balazadeh, 45, Omid Solouki, 24, and brothers Reuben and Ebrahim Kohen-Maslikh, 26 and 25 respectively, all of Shiraz, disappeared Dec. 8, 1994.

Nourollah Rabizadeh-Felfeli, age unknown, and brothers Cyrus and Ebrahim Ghahramani, 64 and 66 respectively, also of Kermanshah, went missing Feb. 12, 1997.

A 12th Jew, Eshagh Hassid, 66, of Hamadan, last spoke with his sister in February 1997 and reportedly indicated he would try to leave the country. His fate is unclear, however, and he hasn’t been included among the list of missing.

Flight across Iran’s southeastern border with Pakistan is common and was even more so during the mid-1990s, when emigration rules were more stringent, Kermanian said.

“Everybody chooses this route for different reasons, but thousands of Jews and millions of non-Jews have left Iran through these means,” he said.

The restrictions on Jews in Iran were particularly tough during the mid-1990s. For example, entire families were forbidden to emigrate; at least one member had to remain behind.

Emigration restrictions have been eased somewhat since then.

That reportedly was the case with the Tehrani family. Most of the family was given permission to leave and, with two younger children to consider, the parents decided that their 19-year-old son, Babak, would remain in Iran as the token family member.

It was only when the family arrived in Vienna for the processing of their American visas that they learned that Babak had disappeared while fleeing on his own, Kermanian said.

Some have suggested that Iran wants at least some Jews to remain in the country as “virtual hostages” to deter any potential attack from Israel. Others say they fear a wholesale Jewish exodus would damage Iran’s image.

Indeed, whenever Iran’s human rights record is criticized, as in a Canadian-sponsored resolution currently circulating at the United Nations, Iranian officials counter by noting that several of the country’s main minority groups — Armenians, Assyrians, Zoroastrians and Jews — have elected representatives in Parliament.

Nevertheless, since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, the Jewish community has dwindled to between 20,000 to 25,000, down from 100,000 in 1979.

“This would be the first government in Persia in 2,500 years to make the country devoid of Jews, and that would not reflect well on the regime,” Kermanian said.

In the first few years after the men disappeared, advocates hoped Iran’s new president, Mohammed Khatami, would prove to be as moderate as he portrayed himself.

But the moderation — especially vis-a-vis the Jews — never materialized, they say.

The first publicized word of the 11 came in September 2000, when Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, broached the subject with Mehdi Kharroubi, the speaker of Iran’s Parliament. Kharroubi, who was visiting New York, reportedly said he would look into the issue.

But that contact came amid more intense, public lobbying efforts to win the release of 10 of the original “Iran 13″ — Jews jailed in 1999 on charges of spying for Israel. Since then, little has been heard publicly about the missing 11.

That changed a month ago, when the mother of Shaheen Nikkhou held a highly publicized meeting in Tehran with Ambeyi Ligabo, the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression.

Ligabo’s visit, said to be the first to Iran by a U.N. human rights envoy in seven years, focused mostly on the detention of numerous political dissidents. Ligabo’s public criticism of Iranian policy since then has included no mention of the missing Jews.

Once Nikkhou’s mother went forward and the Iranian media seized on it, advocates in the United States say they decided to take their activism public.

“The families made the decision that they feel they have nothing left to lose, and I agree,” said Hoenlein, who was expected to deliver a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on behalf of the missing Jews this week. “After nine years with little progress, we still haven’t been able to even verify if they’re alive or in prison.”

Kermanian defended his decision to work until now behind the scenes.

“There is no doubt that had we gone public before having sufficient evidence, the first reaction by those holding them, out of fear they would be held responsible internally, might be to get rid of ‘evidence’ — killing the prisoners and getting rid of their bodies,” Kermanian said. “They’ve done that before, where the bodies of reporters, political dissidents and others surfaced months later.”

At this point, Kermanian said, activists have heard multiple eyewitness accounts from those who saw the missing men in Zahedan, the city where they reportedly were first detained, then in prison in Tehran.

Those reports have been corroborated by Iranian judiciary and intelligence sources, he said.

The plan now is to ramp up public pressure, Hoenlein said, though few seem optimistic about their fate.

“These sightings always give some hope,” Hoenlein said. “But we don’t know if they’re real, or deliberate misinformation by those who have ulterior motives.”

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