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Ahwazi exiles frustrated, fearful following European arrests of four on ‘spying’ charges

Danish authorities arrested three Ahwazi refugees from Iran on Monday, on charges of spying for Saudi Arabia. The Danish government has now extended their detention until the 27th of this month when they are expected to stand trial. The three men have been identified as Habib Jabor, Nasser Jabor, and Yaqoub Hor Altostari. A fourth Ahwazi, Essa Mehdi al-Fakher, a host of the Ahwazna satellite TV channel, was arrested the same day in Holland on identical charges; the two operations are believed to have been coordinated by Danish and Dutch authorities. 

All four men have vigorously denied the accusations against them, asserting that they are being targeted by Iran’s regime, which has already assassinated a number of Ahwazi activists and other dissidents in exile, in retaliation for their opposition to the regime and for raising awareness of its criminality and violence against Ahwazis and other minorities and dissidents. One of the detained men, Habib Jabor, had already been targeted in a failed assassination plot in 2018 by the Iranian regime, which was thwarted by the Politiets Efterretningstjeneste or PET, the Danish Security and Intelligence Service following a major police operation. Following that assassination attempt, the government of Denmark provided security protection to the leaders of the movement. That same protection belies the current claims, since the three men could not have engaged in any clandestine activities while being constantly monitored by Danish security services to ensure their safety. 

All four men are members of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA), a group whose leadership is based in Denmark and the Netherlands, and whose cause has started to gain at least small attention recently. There are fears that the Danish and Dutch governments may have struck deals with the Iranian regime to extradite the men, with the ASMLA and Ahwazi exiles worldwide warning that extradition to Iran would be an almost certain death sentence, given that the regime routinely executes dissidents and human rights activists. 

This type of potential extradition is better described as rendition, “the practice of sending a foreign criminal or terrorist suspect covertly to be interrogated in a country with less rigorous regulations for the humane treatment of prisoners.” Given Iran’s documented track record, any such action would be contrary to the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment, specifically Article 3 section 1 thereof, which provides that “No State Party shall expel, return (refouler) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” 

While Iran is not a party to the convention, both Denmark and the Netherlands are signatories, and have been so since it was ratified in the mid-1980s. The Ahwazi community, and these men specifically, also merit extra protection as refugees under international law. Again, Denmark and the Netherlands are both parties to, inter alia, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Optional Protocol, and are subject to the provisions of the 2004 European Union Council Directive on minimum standards for the qualification and status of third country nationals or stateless persons as refugees or as persons who otherwise need international protection and the content of the protection granted, 2004/83/EC, which prohibits refoulment.

Speaking following the arrests on Monday, PET spokesman Finn Borch Andersen, told reporters, “It is the view of PET that the three people, in the period from 2012 to 2018, have been spying for a Saudi Arabian intelligence service.”

Borch alleged that, among other things, the three men had “collected information about individuals in Denmark and abroad, and passed on this information to a Saudi intelligence service.”

Dutch authorities have issued no public statement so far concerning the detention of Essa Al-Fakher.

The ASMLA has vehemently denied the allegations against it, asserting that all its interactions with Saudi Arabian authorities have been open and legal and are primarily concerned with protecting the safety of Ahwazis in exile following assassinations and attempted assassinations against its members and other Iranian dissidents. 

An ASMLA spokesman also pointed out that despite the Iranian regime’s regular threatening and targeting of its members and other dissidents in exile, the group has firmly rejected any reciprocal attacks or any violent or illegal actions. Any sectarianism, violence and instability that has been brought to Europe was the doing of the Iranian regime alone.

On social media, a number of Ahwazi activists have suggested that Danish authorities may have made a shockingly cynical bargain with Iranian authorities in exchange for business deals, following an announcement by the Danish Ambassador to Iran, Danny Annan, on Tuesday, the day after the arrests, that Denmark’s largest pharmaceutical company is to start activities in Iran within two months.

According to a report by the Iranian regime’s state news agency, IRNA, the Danish ambassador told a senior regime official that the Danish company would begin manufacturing injectable insulin in Iran within two months, with plans to eventually expand its operations to export this insulin across the Middle East. During the meeting, the ambassador also lauded the high volume of trade relations between Iran and Denmark.

Ahwazi activists also underscored that Denmark and the EU have repeatedly refused to support Washington’s increased sanctions against Iran’s regime, while the EU remained largely silent on regime forces’ killing of over 1500 Iranian protesters last year. The EU has also failed to criticise the regime’s involvement in regional wars and violent suppression of peaceful protests outside its borders, most notably Tehran’s proxy militias accused of killing of at least 600 Iraqi protesters since last October. 

The Netherlands and Denmark were also among six nations (also including Finland, Belgium, Norway and Sweden) which joined the Instex barter mechanism last November. The group, established by France, Germany and the UK, is expressly designed to circumvent US sanctions against trade with Iran by avoiding the use of the dollar. 

This is even more troubling, since the EU has not classified the ASMLA as a terrorist or militant group. Much to the contrary, a year ago its leaders were received at the EU headquarters on January 30, 2019, for an event held in the presence of Arab and European parliamentarians to express solidarity with the ‘Parliamentarians for the Sake of Ahwaz’ initiative. This was launched to focus long-denied attention on the plight of the Ahwazi people, who have been subjected to brutal repression, anti-Arab racism and ethnic cleansing by successive Iranian regimes since the formerly autonomous emirate was first fully annexed in 1925. Despite being the source of over 95 per cent of the oil and gas resources claimed by Iran, the region and its native inhabitants suffer the worst poverty and deprivation in the country.

  The charge brought against the four men, spying for Saudi Arabia, is not an unusual one for the Iranian regime, which commonly charges dissidents with spying for ‘enemy states’, most often the USA, Israel and the UK. The rarely substantiated charge provides a pretext for imprisonment and execution, or as a means of extorting money from foreign states in exchange for detainees’ release in the case of dual nationals. 

Indeed, on the same day the four Ahwazis were arrested in the Netherlands and Denmark, Iran’s top court confirmed a death sentence against Amir Rahimpour, who was convicted of ‘spying’ for the CIA and purportedly trying to pass on information about the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, whilst the Fars News Agency reported that, in a separate case, two people working for a charity were sentenced to prison terms of 10 years for spying and five years for allegedly acting against national security on similar charges.

Iran’s regime has previously submitted complaints to Denmark’s government, about the ASMLA’s supposed support for an attack on an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) military parade in Ahwaz in which 25 people, mostly IRGC troops, were killed, with the two gunmen who launched the attack being among the dead. 

In response to that attack, which itself followed a spate of regime killings of Ahwazi civilians, the regime detained and executed over 200 apparently randomly selected Ahwazis, including women and children, none of whom were involved in the attack.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, an Ahwazi dissident and writer said that the arrests had raised concern among the exile community in Europe that Western governments might assist the regime in its efforts to silence and delegitimise dissent. “We’ve always felt relatively safe here – the West stands for freedom, democracy, human rights, not like Iran,” he said. “We thought we could speak out and expose the regime’s crimes. The regime has assassinated Ahwazi and other dissidents in Europe and elsewhere before – we all know its agents and lobbyists are a threat to us, and that we can’t return and see our families while it’s still in power. But we thought the Western governments would at least be on the side of the people supporting freedom, democracy, human rights, all those great values the West represents. After this though, it seems that the regime can silence us even here and even get help from Western governments to do so. I believe the Danish and Dutch judiciary authorities work based on proof and evidence, not like the so-called ‘Revolutionary’ courts in Iran, so I’m confident that the ASMLA leaders will be acquitted quickly; these are false charges. But even when an acquittal ruling’s issued, the regime will have succeeded in carrying out character assassination against these men, slandering them and delegitimising them as ‘spies’ the way it does in Iran in revenge for exposing the Iranian regime’s crimes through their political and media presence. Anyone who’s contributed to publicising the Ahwazi cause around the world will have their reputation maligned and smeared by Iran, which seems to be given impunity by the West.” 

New York-based international human rights attorney Irina Tsukerman pointed out that “Giving in to such accusations by the regime well known for its brutal human rights abuses, and without any evidence, presents a grotesque violation of the due process rights of the accused, unacceptable in democratic societies which pride themselves on their liberal values and strong justice systems.”

Moreover, she stressed, “Following Iran’s agenda blindly will not make European societies safe from terrorism, espionage, or sectarian violence. On the contrary, Iran is the primary exporter of extremist ideologies and methods to Europe and elsewhere.” 

Indeed, the governments of Europe and elsewhere must understand that they are being duped. Any economic benefits will be short-lived, and grossly outweighed by the negative consequences of allowing Iranian interests to be reinvigorated at a time when it is teetering on the brink of collapse due to massive internal dissent as well as regional.

Giving in to Iranian machinations is an act of surrender, and must be understood in the context of 21st-century non-kinetic warfare. While Iran continues to engage in widespread regional proxy warfare via its terrorist clients, its ability to directly export the violence of its revolution has thus far not been particularly successful, as its assassinations of Ahwazis and others resulted in diplomatic reprisals and outrage. The regime must not be allowed to achieve its goals by a combination of economic incentives and trumped up charges. Denmark, the Netherlands, and the rest of Europe – as well as democracies across the globe – must stand fast to their obligations under international law and basic morality, and reject Iranian pressure and quid pro quo offers alike.

By Rahim Hamid and Aaron Eittan Meyer

Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. You can follow him on his twitter account: https://twitter.com/samireza42

 Aaron Eitan Meyer is an attorney admitted to practice in New York State and before the United State Supreme Court, and a researcher and analyst. He has written extensively on lawfare, international humanitarian, and human rights law. You can follow him on his twitter account: https://twitter.com/aaronemeyer 

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