Elena Tehrani turns away at the mention of her son, tears flowing down her tired face. Even 10 years after the fact, the story of Babak Tehrani’s imprisonment in Iran is painful to tell.
On June 8, 1994, Babak, then 17, and his friend Shaheen Nikkhoo, then 20, left Tehran on a secret journey to freedom. Leaving Iran was illegal and risky for the pair, both of whom were at the age of military conscription.
The two Jewish youths planned to cross into Pakistan, then head to Austria and finally to the United States. They and the man who was smuggling them out Atta Mohammed Rigi, arrived in the southeastern city of Zahedan, near Iran’s southeastern border with Pakistan.
Eyewitnesses there saw the two Jews being arrested by non-uniformed secret police, Tehrani said.
“I’ll never forget that day,” said Tehrani, who has begun to speak about her son’s disappearance on U.S.-based Persian-language TV and radio stations.
“I was in Austria, waiting for Babak to call me. Instead, the smugglers’ relatives called and said that Babak, Shaheen and the smugglers had been arrested and they would help get them released,” she said.
Days turned to weeks, though, and the smugglers gave no word on Babak’s condition or whereabouts. Frantic, Tehrani — who by then had immigrated to Southern California — turned for help to two Los Angeles-based Iranian Jewish groups.
The Iranian-American Jewish Federation and the Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations have been at the forefront of trying to secure the release of the two youths, as well as 10 other Iranian Jews imprisoned in the 1990s while trying to flee Iran through Pakistan.
Pakistani officials in New York did not return calls requesting comment on the cases.
“This is a very complicated issue,” said Sam Kermanian, former chairman of the federation. “These people were arrested for the purpose of putting a stop to illegal Jewish migration out of Iran. It was done basically to create fear among Jews in Iran.”
Kermanian said that in the past 10 years the federation, in cooperation with the families of the Iranian Jewish prisoners, has tried to resolve their plight through diplomatic channels in the United States and abroad and via political, human rights and other private contacts.
Frank Nikbakht, public affairs director for the council, said his organization has been collaborating for the past four years with Tehrani and the other families but had taken a more vocal public approach to the situation.
“Sometimes you have to you use diplomacy,” Nikbakht said. “But for this case, because the Iranian government has been lying to the prisoners’ families for so many years and promising to release them, we believe the time has long passed for silent diplomacy, and we have to use all sorts of public pressure on the Iranian government.”
In 2000, with the assistance of various American Jewish groups, the council was successful in publicizing the case of 13 Iranian Jews from Shiraz imprisoned in 1999 on charges of spying for Israel.
The international exposure put pressure on the Iranian regime and the “Iran 13” were eventually released.
The federation also played a role, quietly working for the prisoners’ release through diplomatic channels.
“Back in 2000 we wanted to bring out this case of these prisoners, along with the case of the Shiraz prisoners, but many American Jewish organizations strongly disapproved of this approach, so we couldn’t go ahead with it,” Nikbakht said. “We thought that once we had the attention of the world we should have linked these two issues and solved them together.”
In Israel, meanwhile, political activist Yehuda Kassif has led a one-man mission of public advocacy by lobbying Israeli officials on behalf of the prisoners’ families for the past seven years.
“I worked for so many years voluntarily because no one else seemed to care, except for the nearest families of course,” said Kassif, who is managing director of the Israel Precious Stones and Diamonds Exchange.
Kassif said he has met with Israeli officials including President Moshe Katsav, Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon and members of the Knesset, pressuring them about these cases.
He also said he single-handedly has tried to keep the story alive in the Israeli media through television interviews, circulation of posters with the prisoners’ photos and distribution of bottles of wine bearing their images.
Despite his meetings, Kassif said he has had little success getting Israeli officials to take significant action on behalf of the Iranian Jewish prisoners.
While grateful for the support she has received from various Jewish groups, Tehrani said her son’s case has been forgotten over the years by the general public. After so much time, the Iranian government now denies having custody of her son, she said.
“When my sister went to the Information Ministry in Tehran recently and asked about Babak, they denied even having him and claimed he was stolen by smugglers in the border area. It’s just ridiculous!” Tehrani said. “I know it’s not true because I’ve had many credible witnesses come forward who have proof and seen my son in Iranian prisons.”
The most recent eyewitness verifying Babak’s whereabouts is an Iranian Jewish man in Los Angeles, who asked that his name be withheld out of concerns for his own safety.
In a sworn affidavit given to the Tehrani family, the man indicated that he had seen Babak Tehrani in 1996 in the infamous Evin Prison in Tehran while the man was trying to sell nearby land to prison officials.
“As I was walking, a jail cell with a window caught my eye. I went forward and I saw several youths who were sitting on the floor,” he said in the affidavit. “The poor kids, including one whom I knew particularly since he was my daughter’s classmate and whose name was Babak.”
Evin is among the maximum security prisons the Iranian government uses to hold and torture political dissidents, student protesters, journalists and others that the regime believes poses a threat to its power, Nikbakht said.
Tehrani said her son’s imprisonment for the past decade has been extremely uncommon and suggests foul play. Iranian laws require only a fine or a maximum two-month prison sentence for leaving the country illegally.
“The Iranian government is holding my son but they don’t want to admit it, because it would be embarrassing to them to have held a boy on no charges for the last 10 years,” she said.
She also said she recently has become more vocal about her son’s case. Tehrani appeared on KRSI, a Los Angeles-based Persian-language radio station broadcasting to Iran, to ask Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to release her son.
She also has pleaded for her son’s release on Persian-language television programs beamed from the United States into Iran.
“At this point, I really don’t care about the politics of it all because my son has nothing to do with it — he’s just an innocent person caught in between this mess,” Tehrani said. “I’m even ready to go on the air and publicly apologize to the Iranian government if that’s what it takes for them to release him.”
Over the past 10 years, the families of these dozen Jewish prisoners have formed an L.A.-based group called the Families of Iranian Jewish Prisoners to keep the issue in the public eye, and to continue to collect data about their imprisoned relatives.
Iranian Jewish leaders in Southern California said they will continue to cautiously pursue the case, recognizing the risk that their activity could potentially pose to the approximately 20,000 Jews still living in Iran.
Tehrani and other family members of the prisoners contacted for this story said that despite the passage of time, they have not given up hope that they will see their loved ones again.
“Hope is all I have had these past 10 years — the hope that someone will come forward and finally help bring Babak back to me,” Tehrani said. “Maybe then I will have a normal life again knowing he’s safe in my arms.”
(Karmel Melamed is a freelance journalist in Southern California.)