“Fariba, how the time must pass slowly for you, imprisoned, shut away, locked up for wanting to do your job,” a woman said in softly-spoken French. The message is one of hundreds posted to a website dedicated to Fariba Adelkhah, a French-Iranian researcher at a prestigious university in Paris. Only Fariba could not hear them – she was locked away in one of Tehran’s most notorious prisons.
On June 5, 2019, Fariba’s partner and fellow academic Roland Marchal touched down at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport, one of several visits to the country. Fariba was conducting research in the holy city of Qom and the two, a couple for decades, planned to holiday in Iran. But at the airport, he was whisked away by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), questioned for more than five hours and spent the night in a cell before being taken to Evin prison.
Across the city, Fariba was also stopped by the IRGC and taken to Evin. The two were held in a “high-security” IRGC ward mostly reserved for political prisoners. It was weeks before Roland learned of Fariba’s imprisonment, hearing her cries of “Azadi!”– Farsi for “freedom”– when she was taken away for interrogation.
Ten months later, Roland, a French national, was freed in a prisoner swap and returned to Paris. Fariba, a dual national, continues to languish in detention at the hands of the IRGC. Now under house arrest, she is serving a five-year sentence for conspiring against national security.
The Iranian regime has been notorious for using Western captives for political leverage since its foundation, the beginning of its rule marked by the US Embassy hostage crisis of 1979-1981. Detentions of foreign nationals have continued, despite hopes that a lauded 2015 nuclear deal would bring about a detente. According to international law scholar Eileen Denza, at least 30 dual nationals have been detained since 2015 without access to diplomatic or consular protection.
France remains a signatory to the nuclear deal and has tried to play a role in tempering hostilities between the US and Iran. Yet French and other Western academics who work in or visit the country appear to have an ever-growing target on their backs.
Foreign and dual nationals are most often detained on spying charges that carry sentences of up to ten years. According to human rights groups, at least nine dual nationals are currently being held in Iranian prisons.
Iran does not recognise dual citizenship, so dual national detainees like Fariba are unable to access support of their second country that could help free them.
‘She knew how it worked’
Raised in Tehran, Fariba moved to Paris in the 1980s to begin her academic career. Olivier Roy, a fellow Iran researcher, has known the scholar since the 1980s, when she began working at CERI (Centre de recherches internationales) – the research branch of Sciences Po, France’s premier political science university. The two quickly became close friends. From 1990 to 2009, they saw each other often, meeting up across the globe before Roy moved to Florence to work for the European Universities Institute. He is now a key member of the support committee fighting for her release.
In speaking of his colleague, Roy paints a picture of a dedicated researcher with connections across Iranian society and politics. “She wasn’t an explicit supporter of the regime but she knew how it worked. She was close with reformists…but she saw things with a bit of distance. She didn’t have any problem with wearing the veil.”
Roy himself stopped visiting Iran several years ago, after being interrogated by security forces. “You felt pressure. It becomes complicated as a researcher,” he said.
That pressure is all the more intense for dual nationals, who are aware of the scrutiny their entry to Iran will bring them, whichever passport they use. Though Fariba knew she was disliked by some in the regime, she continued to visit her home country – a decision that would eventually seal her fate.
Getting information from those detained in Evin is no easy feat. Telephone privileges can be taken away at a moment’s notice. For Fariba’s loved ones, information trickled out through former inmates and other women in the prison.
“The indications we have are very negative. We’ve heard that she was beaten, that she was mistreated,” Roy said. She would be allowed the occasional phone call, but Roy said in August that he had not heard news from her since the spring.
Until September, Fariba was held in Ward 2-A, a section run by IRGC intelligence and notorious even by the standards of Evin prison. The ward is known for holding protesters, and a women’s section was added in 2009 when widespread protests over that year’s election hit the country. Reports describe impossibly narrow rooms, mirrored walls, and torture to exact confessions.
Along with wardmate Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert, Fariba went on hunger strike on December 24, seven months after she was first detained. The two said in an open letter that they wanted “justice for the countless, thousands, unnamed yet not forgotten men and women who have suffered the same fate as ours or worse, and have been imprisoned in Iran, having committed no crime.”
They also demanded to be transferred out of 2-A, where they had been subject to “psychological torture and numerous violations of our basic human rights.”
That demand was met and Fariba was moved to the general women’s section within a few days, but she continued her hunger strike until February 12, ending it on request of civil and political activists, her lawyer told AFP at the time.
Six weeks of hunger strike left Fariba “weakened”, said her lawyer Said Dehghan; “Her voice was difficult to hear, and she has difficulty walking.” Less than two weeks after her hunger strike ended, she was transferred to the prison’s hospital to be treated for kidney damage, Dehghan said.
The deterioration of her health came as the coronavirus spread into Iran. The country was hit hard and early, just weeks after Fariba went from the isolation of Ward 2-A to being in a cell with “40 or so other people”, according to Jean-Francois Bayart, the director of the Fariba Adelkhah Support Committee. Concern for her health grows ever deeper as Iran’s virus death toll, now standing at over 29,000, shows little sign of slowing.
“We’re very worried about the risk she runs with the resurgence of COVID-19 in Iran, even if prison authorities seem to be taking precautions,” Bayart said.
Realising that coronavirus had come to wreak serious damage, the Iranian government announced in the spring that it would be releasing over 100,000 inmates from the country’s overcrowded prison system. But most were left to stay at prisons like Evin, where pandemic-era health measures were inadequate, according to an April 2020 report by the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran. Some inmates, including prominent human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, went on hunger strike to protest their conditions and continued detention.
“Fariba Adelkhah has been weakened by the long hunger strike she undertook from December to February,” Bayart said. “She’s the perfect victim if she contracts the virus.”
IRGC’s ‘badge of pride’
Dual and foreign national detainees are victims not only to international tensions, but to friction between factions of Iran’s highest levels of power, most notably the IRGC – defenders of the 1979 Islamic Revolution – and the government.
In her decades of research in Iran, Fariba had gained the trust of some of the country’s most powerful. Work on Afghanistan in the 1980s meant liaising with Iranian diplomats, and she was well-regarded by researchers from all over the country. Her connections reached across the political spectrum, affording her what seemed to be a sense of protection. “She was never scared,” Roy said. But ultimately, these connections would prove to be of little help in the face of the IRGC, the defending force of the post-1979 regime with close ties to Iran’s supreme leader.
The IRGC wields not just military might, but economic and political power heavy enough to put it at odds with the reformist government of President Hassan Rouhani. Guard members expressed vocal opposition to the 2015 nuclear deal, and the concessions Rouhani made to achieve it. Rouhani has been publicly critical of the IRGC, saying that it wields too much power that must be better distributed.
The IRGC is no stranger to international wrangling. Its navy has been embroiled in confrontations with foreign tankers in the Persian Gulf that reached boiling point last summer, and its elite Quds Force, once led by the recently assassinated Qasem Soleimani, backs foreign armed groups that work in Iran’s regional interests. Its detention of foreign nationals is just one part of its world-stage action.
The 2015 nuclear deal was supposed to usher in a new peace. Instead, foreign and dual nationals working at charities and universities were detained with new vigour on security charges by the IRGC.
Among dual nationals in detention is Nazanin Zagari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian charity worker arrested at Imam Khomeini airport in April 2016 following a visit to her parents for the spring holiday of Newroz with her baby daughter. Six months later, she was convicted of attempting to “topple the Iranian regime.”
Her husband Richard Ratcliffe has ceaselessly called for her release. In a conversation with Rudaw English, he called the detention of foreign nationals “a badge of pride” for the IRGC.
“They have no pretense about being hostage takers,” Ratcliffe said. “There has to be a cost for hostage taking. Until such a time that they don’t think this is a clever tactic, they’re going to keep doing it.”
The US government in particular says it does not negotiate with the IRGC and other groups it calls “terrorist organisations” for the release of prisoners and captors, but has released frozen Iranian assets to secure release of its citizens. And with Iran’s coffers squeezed by heavy economic sanctions, the capture of American hostages has even been suggested by one IRGC officer as a way of recuperating Iran’s financial losses.
Ratcliffe told Rudaw English that his wife had travelled to the country several times since their daughter Gabriella’s birth, and never suspected anything untoward. “This was the fourth time she had gone with Gabriella in the space of 18 months. To be picked up and held just didn’t make any sense at all. She was genuinely a mum with her baby on holiday.”
Fariba’s 2019 trip to Iran was similarly informed by the familiar safety of her previous visits. Roy said she had “underestimated” the IRGC’s will to detain dual and foreign nationals.
Sometimes, “Iranian dual nationals are victims of the inter-factional or inter-agency rivalry in the Islamic Republic,” Ali Alfoneh, an Iran researcher and senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute told Rudaw English. “It is therefore not uncommon to see the Intelligence Ministry saying a specific Iranian dual national is completely innocent, while the parallel Intelligence Organization of the Revolutionary Guard Corps insists that person is guilty.”
Roy said that as part of its work to free Fariba, the committee “met many Iranian diplomats” who quietly disapproved of her detention.
“I can see that they are not happy at all about Fariba’s arrest…but they are still under pressure. It’s a bigger conflict between the IRGC and the Iranian government, which is losing its influence.”
For example, rivalry between the ministry of intelligence and the IRGC’s intelligence section extends to whether nationality should be granted to children born from an Iranian mother and a foreign father. A bill to approve the move was amended by the hardliner-controlled Guardian Council to specify that the person has to be vetted by both the government’s ministry of intelligence and IRGC intelligence.
‘Iranian national Fariba Adelkhah’
Iran, like 178 other countries, is a signatory of the UN’s Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Article 36 of the convention “requires a nation arresting or detaining a foreign national to afford the detainee access to his or her consulate and to notify the foreign national of the right of consular access.”
“Consular officers shall have the right to visit a national of the sending State who is in prison, custody or detention, to converse and correspond with him and to arrange for his legal representation. They shall also have the right to visit any national of the sending State who is in prison, custody or detention in their district in pursuance of a judgment,” the article reads.
Roland was granted French consular support because he was considered a French national. Iran considers Fariba as an Iranian only, and so she was denied French support. Iran’s former foreign ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi routinely and reflectively referred to Fariba in press conferences as an “Iranian citizen”.
“The dual citizenship of Iranian nationals is not recognized by the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran and, therefore, Ms. Adelkhah is regarded as an Iranian citizen and enjoys all the citizenship rights for Iranian nationals,” including a fair trial, Mousavi said in October 2019.
Mousavi has lashed out at French calls for Fariba’s release as “meddling in the case of Iranian nationals”, an act he called “irrelevant and with no legal validity”.
Dual nationals are victim to an inherited and involuntary allegiance, Dr. Amy Malek, an Iranian-American and the Assistant Professor of International Studies at the College of Charleston told Ajam Media Collective in November 2019.
“There’s a jus sanguinis law in Iran that says that if you are born to an Iranian father, you are a citizen of Iran…You have a situation where you’re born into a citizenship automatically, and if you are then scrutinised or somehow penalised for having had that citizenship…there’s nothing you can really do but try to renounce,” Malek said.
Even if a dual national wanted to shed their Iranian nationality, it would be virtually impossible to do. “In the Iranian civil code, there is a pathway to renounce,” Malek said, “but among the things you have to do…you have to get permission from the cabinet of the prime minister, and that’s an extremely high threshold that effectively makes it understood in both the state level with other countries and personally that renunciation is effectively impossible for Iranians to officially achieve.”
Power in persistence
Negotiating change for foreign nationals in Iranian detention is not impossible, Tara Sepheri Far from Human Rights Watch told Rudaw English.
“Based on what we have seen, if the government are persistent they’re able to provide some sort of consular supports to their citizens…persistent often means a combination of public and private statements and pressure through UN human rights fora,” Sepheri Far said, giving the example of British and French embassy support for its staff arrested in the aftermath of the 2009 elections.
In what might be considered a small win, Fariba’s reintegration into the general prison population at Evin was a move achieved with French intervention.
Though Roy believes France “should have done more” to secure Fariba’s freedom – including getting French universities to cut all academic ties with Iranian institutions – Bayart said France has been very supportive in the pursuit of freedom for both Fariba and Roland.
“French diplomacy is working by Fariba Adelkhah’s side in the same way as Roland Marchal. It was the very first thing that the official from the foreign ministry’s crisis cell said to me when I met them: “For us, it’s about two French nationals”’, Bayart told Rudaw English.
“It must be recognised that France is distinguishing itself in its determination to protect its foreigners from Iran’s cynical arbitrariness, dual nationals or otherwise,” he said, drawing a comparison with the UK, where then foreign minister, now prime minister Boris Johnson told a House of Commons committee that Nazanin was in Iran “to teach people journalism”, when she was in fact visiting family.
“They are being cavalier about it just because of Brexit, and Boris Johnson is demonstrating that with his blunders, even indifference to this cause,” Bayart said.
Nazanin has served four and a half years of her five year sentence. But last month, a second court case was opened against her and then postponed to an unknown date, something her husband Ratcliffe had grimly expected.
Ratcliffe has been consistently critical of both Iran and the UK for the continued detention of his wife. “It’s disingenuous to say Iran doesn’t recognise dual nationality. The only reason Nazanin was picked up is because she has a British passport,” he said.
“It’s very convenient – Iran does it because it can justify not providing consular access, and the UK maintains the fiction because it then essentially provides a fig leaf as to why it’s allowing people to sit in prison for years.”
Both the judiciary and parliament are now controlled by pro-IRGC hardliners who oppose Rouhani’s handing of Iran’s relations with the West, making the detention of foreign and dual nationals likely to continue.
Fariba’s lawyer announced on October 3 that she had been temporarily released from prison and placed under house arrest. An electronic tag ensures she won’t be able to venture any further than 300 metres from the Tehran home of her sister and brother-in-law. While her release from Evin may appear to offer a glimpse of hope for her eventual freedom, her support committee is sceptical.
“This does not change the root of the problem,” the committee said. Fariba remains in jail, “under the guise of a five-year prison sentence, after an unfair “trial”, on the basis of inept accusations.”
Source » rudaw