The July 13, 2021 revelation about the indictment by the United State Department of Justice of four Iranians involved in a kidnapping plot targeting Masih Alinejad and other unnamed activists in exile has shocked and dismayed the Iranian diaspora. The Islamic Republic of Iran’s history of politically motivated violence across the world is not new. Since 1979 Iranian agents have carried out attacks against hundreds of refugees, most often with impunity, hence their repetition. Iranian authorities respond to rising discontent and unrest with violence. Protests, which broke over water shortages in Khuzestan on July 15, may have already resulted in 10 deaths and citizens have shown solidarity through open letters and protests in several cities. In such a climate, the threat to those abroad giving a voice to the persecuted should not be underestimated.
Alinejad is a New York-based journalist and dissident whose relentless activism against the compulsory veil for women has emboldened many to defy the discriminatory law. Since 2014, her various campaigns, and her efforts to give a voice to mothers of protesters killed in November 2019, have drawn millions to her social media pages. They have also angered Iran’s leadership.
Like many activists and journalists in exile, Masih and her family have faced harassment and intimidation from various Iranian state agencies. Her brother Ali Alinejad, who supported her activism, was sentenced in July 2020 to eight years in prison on trumped-up national security charges including “propaganda against the state.”
The recent kidnapping plot against Masih Alinejad fits a decades-long pattern of intimidation, extrajudicial killings and abductions of dissidents meant to undermine political and religious groups, silence activists and journalists, and prevent the mobilization of effective opposition movements inside and outside the country. Most concerning to activists is the encroachment of Iran’s intelligence into the US, where no assassination or kidnapping attempt against had been reported for over three decades.
In its ongoing research, Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights (ABC) has identified more than 540 Iranians whose successful assassination or kidnapping have been attributed to Iran, and many are still unaccounted for. Though many of these reported cases remain to be investigated, the general trend of successful attacks on dissidents is alarming.
Countries neighboring Iran have witnessed more attacks as have countries where transparency and accountability have not been a priority. Iraq (30) excluding Iraqi Kurdistan (380 reported cases), Pakistan (30), and Turkey (28) have had by far the highest number of successful attacks, followed by France (13), Afghanistan (at least 9) and Germany (6). Dissidents have also been killed in smaller numbers in Austria, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Sweden, the Netherlands, the United States, the UAE, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Azerbaijan, India, the Philippines, and Poland, and Spain, among others.
With a peak in the 1990s of more than 397 (329 in Iraqi Kurdistan) killed – and a decline in the 2000s, with 20 known deaths – kidnappings, disappearances, and extra-judicial killings have spread fear in the exile community for over four decades.
The decline in reported attacks in the 2000s followed the conviction by a German court on April 10, 1997 of four men for the extra-judicial execution of three Kurdish leaders and an interpreter in Berlin’s Mykonos restaurant. The court found that Iran’s political leadership had ordered the killing through a “Committee for Special Operations” whose members included the Leader of the Islamic Republic, the President, and the Minister of Information and Security, Ali Fallahian, against whom an arrest warrant had been issued. The Mykonos judgement prompted EU member countries to recall their ambassadors from Iran on April 15, 1997.
Victims of extrajudicial assassinations named in order of top left to bottom right: Fereydoun Farrokhzad, Abdollah Qaderi Azar; Eqbal Moradi; Shapur Bakhtiar; Ali Akbar Mohammadi; Abdol-Rahman Qasemlu; Shahriar Shafiq; Pishva Azizpur; Hamid Reza Chitgar; Gholam Ali Naraki (Keshavarz)
The targets of Iran’s terror plots reflect Iran’s population in its diversity: believers and non believers, Shi’as, Sunnis, communists, social democrats, socialists, nationalists, royalists, autonomists; those who joined armed groups, and those who used their pens and their beliefs to stand up to their oppressors or report their abuses; those who refused to compromise and those who were willing to negotiate.
These women and men had fled persecution at home, and trusted that the countries offering them refuge would keep them safe. But, for the most part, their host countries failed to protect them, denying them justice and often the truth. Granting impunity to those who ordered the attacks carried out on their soil, host countries have strengthened their resolve and extended their reach.
In order from top left to bottom right: Habibollah Sarbazi survived a kidnapping attempt in Turkey in 2019, Ruhollah Zam, who was kidnapped in Iraq and executed in Iran in 2020, Ebrahim Safizadeh and Mas’ud Molavi, both victims of extrajudicial killing.
- Take appropriate measures to prevent human rights violations
- Investigate violations promptly, thoroughly and impartially and take action against those allegedly responsible;
- Provide victims with fair, equal, and effective access to justice, regardless of who may ultimately bear the responsibility for the violation; and
- Provide effective remedies to victims, including reparation.
States should ensure the protection of the rights of the refugees they host, and hold Iran accountable both for its systemic use of violence to silence dissidents and for expanding its terror apparatus into their territory.
Prioritizing a narrow interpretation of national security and business interests over states’ duty to implement international law has invited and will continue to invite violence. The flow of citizens fleeing Iran to protect their right to security and life will not stop any time soon, and Iran’s leaders, faced with a serious crisis of legitimacy, will not stop at silencing their critics inside the country. They will continue to target those in exile who give citizens a voice, unless they are shown that the political cost of doing so is prohibitive.