The news of Iranian intelligence services’ abduction of Ahwazi dissident Habib Chaab on 9th October 2020 in Istanbul has been trending internationally, notably after Turkey published a video and photos of Habib’s arrival at Istanbul airport.
Forty-seven-year-old Habib Farajallah Chaab, known as Habib Asyoud, is a popular and widely respected Ahwazi political activist, who has spoken out against the Iranian regime’s oppressive rule and its numerous crimes against the Ahwazis since he became involved in politics in the 1990s. Since his arrival in Sweden as a refugee in 2006, Chaab felt compelled to continue his activities and advocacy for freedom and human rights, feeling strongly that it is his moral duty to speak out against the Iranian regime’s crimes toward the indigenous Arab people of Ahwaz.
Chaab has faced several problems caused by the Iranian regime’s relentless efforts to terrorise and silence Ahwazi activists in recent years, including his arrest by Interpol in Poland in February 2019. Following the arrest, carried out at Tehran’s behest, the Iranian regime attempted to have him extradited from Warsaw, but this attempt was unsuccessful thanks to a decision by a Polish court and international pressure. The situation in October 2020 was completely different from any challenges Habib Chaab had faced in the past; because he was kidnapped by Iranian agents and taken to Tehran.
The Iranian intelligence agents’ abduction of Chaab in Turkey is, in fact, not unusual; this is only the latest such operation by the regime, which threatens Ahwazis and other dissidents not only in Iran, but in exile worldwide, with assassinations and kidnappings being a favourite tool; the regime’s chilling indifference to international law threatens not only the dissidents themselves, but the national security of many European countries, as well as Turkey.
After it was confirmed that Chaab had been abducted by agents working for Iran’s regime in Turkey, a number of media published a report of his kidnapping, with some human rights organisations condemning Iran’s kidnapping, forced confessions and other attempts to silence and intimidate political opponents in exile in European countries and the United States.
Based on their own knowledge and experience; however, Habib’s wife, his party colleagues, and many other leading Ahwazi political figures have different analyses and perspectives regarding his abduction to those published by the Arabic language as well as most recently, US media. Recent Turkish moves against Iran concerning Chaab’s abduction, reportedly by a drug gang linked to the Iranian regime’s intelligence apparatus present yet another possibility, although the various allegations remain unsubstantiated, and the only person capable of correcting them, Habib Chaab, now languishing in an Iranian prison, is not at liberty to explain what really happened.
Turkish official sources have stated that Habib Chaab was lured into a trap by a young woman working as a ‘honeytrap’ for Iran’s regime who persuaded him to travel alone to Turkey and hand him over to the aforementioned drug gang members with regime ties who drugged him before smuggling him back into Iran. According to a Turkish police official, “Chaab was persuaded to fly to Turkey to meet a woman, who worked for Iranian intelligence services.” On Habib’s arrival in Istanbul, the official said, he went to a rendezvous point, where he was drugged and bound, with Turkish police reporting that he was then spirited from the Turkish capital to the eastern border province of Van neighbouring Iran, from where he was smuggled across the border into Iran and handed over to waiting regime intelligence officers. In the wake of Chaab’s kidnapping, Turkey has detained 11 people involved in the abduction and smuggling to Iran of the Ahwazi dissident wanted by Tehran.
While the information released on the case by Turkey to date is welcome, the details of events remain unclear, and further specifics are needed to clarify what exactly happened and how Chaab came to be kidnapped.
From what we do know, however, any analysis of this case must look at several issues, namely:
A few days after Habib Chaab’s disappearance in Istanbul, his wife, Ahwazi activists, party colleagues and friends began publishing reports and details of his abduction. Although Turkey said that Habib Chaab arrived in the country on 9th October, no-one arrested him then, with the official report noting that “Habib went to the hotel in Istanbul and then disappeared.” Turkey has also refused to provide further details regarding Chaab’s case, despite the requests of the Swedish authorities, and Ahwazi political and rights groups.
Turkey’s announcement of Chaab’s abduction by the narcotrafficking gang in coordination with the ‘honeytrap’ agent, named only as ‘Sabrin S’, and a few other individuals connected to Iran’s regime, came as a surprise to worried Ahwazis who had been trying to find out what happened since his abduction. At the time, Turkish officials were reporting that he had been seized by the gang in the Beylikduzu district in western Istanbul. Turkey posted photos, videos, and other recordings showing Chaab, Sabrin S., and some other individuals accused of involvement in his abduction, claiming that “Iran had contacted Naji Sharifi Zindashti, the leader of a drug cartel, in Istanbul, to abduct Habib.” Following these accusations, Turkey arrested 11 members of Naji Sharifi’s gang in Istanbul and issued a number of photos and a video of Sabrin S., stating that “Iran illegally kidnapped Chaab in Istanbul and sent him to Van, eastern Turkey, and then across the mountain to Iran.”
The Andalou News Agency reported on Monday, 14th December that “Zindashti’s brother played an active role in the operation to kidnap Farjolah Chaab “, saying, “In Iran, Zindashti’s brother, along with Naji Sharif Zindashti and his partner, Nihat Ashan, had several meetings in Tehran and Urmia with intelligence agents. The focus of these meetings was Habib Chaab, and finally, a meeting was arranged between Sabrin S. and Chaab in Istanbul.”
According to the Turkish official sources, Zindashti’s brother-in-law arrived in Turkey on 7th October to put together a group to carry out the operation. One day later on 8th October, Sabrin S. arrived in Istanbul using a fake passport, the Turkish officials said, with Habib Chaab arriving in Istanbul on 9th October before travelling to Beylikduzu area, where he believed he was to meet with Sabrin, but instead ended up being bundled into a van or a minibus.
Thereafter, said the Turkish official account, “Habib Chaab was anaesthetised in the minibus and handed over to the smugglers,” with officials reporting that “After binding his hands and feet, the smugglers took him to a house in the city of Van on 10th October and then transferred him to Iran illegally. Sabrin returned to Iran on the same day.”
Other reports, on the other hand, suggest some ambiguity in the case of Habib Chaab’s kidnapping, despite Turkey’s reports about the involvement of gangs linked to Iranian intelligence services in the abduction. To better understand the ambiguities in this case, we first need to obtain answers to some crucial questions.
First, did Turkey know about Chaab’s abduction from the beginning or not, and why were these details published two months after his kidnapping? Who is Sabrin S? How did she enter Turkey and leave after only a day? How does Turkey know her name? Can Turkey publish more details about this mystery woman such as a copy of her passport? Is Turkey ready to cooperate with Sweden to solve the issue? Is Turkey linked directly or indirectly with this incident? And why didn’t Turkey arrest Habib Chaab at the airport when his name is on the Interpol list at the behest of Iran’s regime?
Turkey must also answer the questions about how a drug gang transferred Habib Chaab from Istanbul to Van. Were Iranian diplomats involved in moving Habib to the city? It is necessary to explain here that Van is in the country’s far-east, a 20-hour drive from Istanbul with several checkpoints along the way – so how did the group transfer a drugged man to Van without facing any problem at these checkpoints?
It is essential that these questions are answered because doing so will help to clarify the details of the case, and allow Habib’s family and the Swedish authorities in the country that is his home to more effectively pursue action in regard to his case through the international community.
While there is no doubt that the Iranian regime is dangerous, that it is heavily involved in selling drugs and in international terrorism, or that it uses these unsavoury contacts to target people, countries and entities, answering the lingering questions and publishing more precise information regarding the Habib Chaab’s case can help everyone to monitor it more closely and follow it up through the international community.
We must emphasise that the recent reports issued by Turkey on Habib Chaab’s kidnapping may be wholly correct to a large degree, but it is incomprehensible to those who know him and who know the background of his case that he would have chosen to travel to Turkey for the reasons given or been so careless about arrangements there. Many believe that Turkey has released some details of the case, but is holding a lot of information back, possibly to reduce diplomatic pressure from Sweden and the European Union, given Chaab’s status as a Swedish and European citizen.
In connection with Chaab’s case, Turkish sources also referred to the previous assassinations of two other Iranian dissidents in Turkey, Saied Kariman and Massoud Molavi, noting that “The killers of the two were also in the group of Farajallah Chaab’s kidnapping operation.” Saied Karimian, the Director of GEM TV, was shot dead by unknown individuals in Istanbul in 2017, while. Massoud Molavi, a critic of the Islamic Republic and the director of the Black Box Telegram channel, was also killed in Istanbul in 2019.
The involvement of the drug gang in these assassinations and Chaab’s kidnapping is also another reminder of the Iranian regime’s long history of collusion with drug cartels since its establishment in 1979. The regime had numerous dissidents living in exile in Europe assassinated in the 1980s and 1990s in coordination with affiliated terrorist groups and drug networks linked to Hezbollah. Iran’s regime also attempted to organise the assassination of the former Saudi Ambassador to Washington and former Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel Al-Jubeir, in 2011 in Washington DC, in coordination with a Mexican drug cartel. In another case, Ahwazi political leader Ahmad Mola Nissi was assassinated at point-blank range outside his home in the Hague on the regime’s behalf, again in an operation believed to have been carried out in coordination with a drug cartel. Similarly, another opposition figure and dissident in exile was assassinated on the regime’s behalf in the Netherlands by a member of a drug cartel in exchange for a payment of 130,000 euros.
Iran has been repeatedly accused of using operatives to lure dissidents into locations where they can be kidnapped or killed. This includes the journalist Ruhollah Zam, recently executed in Iran. The prominent dissident journalist and blogger had been living in France, but travelled to Iraq in October 2019 where he was snatched by Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and taken back to Iran. Iran’s regime also abducted Jamshid Sharmahd in July 2020.
It should be emphasised that the Iranian regime views Ahwazi opposition figures and dissidents living in the West as primary targets, given their central role in putting international pressure on the regime. This is why the Iranian regime uses every possible method, including working with drug gangs, human traffickers and terrorist groups, to target Ahwazi politicians.
For all these reasons, the issue of Habib Chaab’s kidnapping in Turkey remains a mystery. While there is no doubt that Turkey has published limited details and news about the case, it has withheld vital information that would help to clarify events surrounding the abduction, such as reasons for the travel and exact particulars, including details of Chaab’s kidnappers.
Security professionals believe that Habib Chaab may have travelled to Turkey for commercial or political reasons after receiving guarantees from a certain group, but that he also tried to meet with Sabrin S. (Sabrin Saiedi) whilst he was there for unknown reasons. Due to the sensitivity of the real reason for Chaab’s visit, these sources suggest, Turkey released the information about his planned liaison with Sabrin Saiedi, but concealed other details. Given the contradictions, ambiguities and rumours surrounding the case, more information is needed from Turkey to fully understand the case.
While a meeting between Chaab and the Swedish consul at the prison where Chaab is being held would help to resolve many of these ambiguities, Iran’s regime has flatly rejected the proposal by the Swedish official to meet with Chaab there. A spokesman for Sweden’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday that, despite Chaab’s Swedish citizenship, its diplomats had still not been given consular access to him.
There are other strange contradictions concerning this situation. Most recently, reports emerged of Turkey’s cooperation with IRGC in surveillance, abductions, and harassments of Iranian dissidents. On the other hand, the 2019 assassination of Masoud Molani Vardanjani may have contributed to tensions between Tehran and Ankara. That incident was orchestrated by Iranian diplomats, following the 2018 model of IRGC operatives under diplomatic cover masterminding terrorist attacks, operations, and attempted assassination all over the world, and particularly, in Europe.
The current situation develops in light of Turkey’s apparent tensions with Iran over other matters. Most recently, Tehran had attacked Erdogan by summoning the Turkish ambassador following his remarks as he was visiting Azerbaijan, with which Turkey has enjoyed historically close relations. Azerbaijan, a secular, Shia-majority country, has trade relations with Iran, but also presents a perceived threat to the Islamic Republic due to the large percentage of ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran, many of whom remain culturally attached to Azerbaijani identity. Furthermore, Azerbaijan’s secular character and historic tradition of religious tolerance is a challenge to Tehran’s Khomeinist model of revolutionary political Shi’a Islam it has been looking to export globally.
These tensions may also reflect Turkey’s diplomatic posture in light of the emerging political transition in the United States. Turkey may be looking to court the Biden administration by distancing itself from the worst of aggressive behaviour in Europe and to disassociate itself from Iran’s brand of aggression, at least until the relations with the White House are on a firmer footing. Erdogan’s tensions with Europe have reached their pinnacle this year, with the EU threatening sanctions following Turkey’s provocative manoeuvres in the Eastern Mediterranean, which have outright threatened other members of NATO.
Turkey, in fact, may have initially cooperated with Iran over Chaab’s abduction but following the US elections and the most recent incident with Baku, may have decided to send Tehran a message with the symbolic arrests of known operatives and public statements for the benefit of the Western press.
Still, whatever Turkey’s motivations in this story, there remain many other troubling questions and concerns around this area. Chaab had to have known that Turkey is not a safe place for Iranian dissidents, even for a Swedish national. Given his experiences in Poland last year, why would he risk travelling that country even with assurances from particular groups rather than meet with whomever he had to meet in a less contentious territory? It is also unclear why the drug gang members would be arrested only now despite evidence linking them to previous crimes and murders, and how is that possible that Turkey has intercepted all this information following this chain of events but appeared to have no inkling as to the plans for Chaab before his disappearance.
At this point no has admitted to knowing the mysterious Sabrin S. who is pictured in a video camera meeting Chaab – but how could Chaab as a registered UN refugee who had been under surveillance from Iran and various intelligence services living a double life knowing individuals not one person in his circles had any inkling about? That defies common sense. Furthermore, the assertions about a potential romantic entanglement likewise seem unlikely given the limitations in travel for both parties, Chaab’s close contact with his associates in Europe, and having been out of Iran since 2006. Even if that potential surreptitious relationship held true, it is doubtful that Chaab would lose his sense to the point of travel to Turkey and placing his life and work in danger just for that meeting.
At this point no has admitted to knowing the mysterious Sabrin S. who appears to be pictured in a circulated video of an unidentified woman allegedly meeting Chaab – but how could a registered UN refugee who had been under surveillance from Iran and various intelligence services living a double life knowing individuals not one person in his circles had any inkling about? That defies common sense. Furthermore, the assertions about a potential romantic entanglement likewise seem unlikely given the limitations in travel for both parties, Chaab’s close contact with his associates in Europe, and having been out of Iran since 2006. Even if that potential surreptitious relationship held true, it is doubtful that Chaab would lose his sense to the point of travel to Turkey and placing his life and work in danger just for that meeting. Furthermore, Ahwazi sources dispute this video disseminated by some media outlets. If it is a manipulation, is this the job of the Turkish intelligence looking to support a concocted story that would whitewash its own potential role in Chaab’s abduction? Or is it the work of amateurs with an agenda and interfering with the narrative Turkey is alleging or willing to admit?
What is of further interest is that Sabrin S, if she is indeed associated with the intelligence in Iran and with the organised crime gangs in Turkey was so careless as to let herself be seen right in front of a surveillance camera with Chaab. It is almost like that breadcrumb was deliberately placed to create a particular impression for future investigators. She had taken no measures to hide her identity, and was readily recognisable, as some have testified. And if that is the case, and she had been known to Chaab’s associates, the question remains, why they have not come forward and revealed what they had known about this woman’s activities and history with Chaab, beyond idle speculation. The next step would be to look back over the records of public events involving Chaab and to track video footage and registrations to see whether anyone named Sabrin S or who fit the description of the woman had attended those events in the past.
Furthermore, Chaab’s full travel itinerary should be examined for clues of his destination and mission, and anyone who came into contact with him before he reached Turkey should be made an essential part of the investigation.
The lack of communication between Chaab and his colleagues who appear unaware of his travel plans is likewise disconcerting. If Chaab was lured into a trap with false promises or threats from some third party, his most recent communications should be examined for evidence of information that might bring clarity to this situation and help identify the perpetrators of his abduction. However, regardless of what brought about this chain of events, abduction, torture, forced confessions, and political hostage-taking of dissidents by Iran should be unequivocally condemned by the international community. Not just Sweden, but the entire EU should place pressure on Iran to release Chaab and all others who have been illegally spirited away and forced to parade before cameras, and the officials connected to anyone responsible for this crime should be sanctioned.
By Kamil Alboshoka and Irina Tsukerman, and Rahim Hamid
Kamil Alboshoka is an Ahwazi researcher and international law specialist. He tweets under @KAlboshoka
Irina Tsukerman is a New-York based Human Rights Lawyer, National Security Analyst. She can be followed under @irinatsukerman.
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. He tweets under @Samireza42.