Friday, March 04, 2005

Mullah Power: Iran Sends Killers Abroad To Silence Dissent

James Rupert, Newsday:
When Abdulrahim Raeesi, an Iranian political science professor, wrote in an underground newspaper that Iran needs more democracy, men from the Ministry of Intelligence and Security soon found him. They arrested and tortured him, so badly, he said, that he had to be hospitalized. Last year, Raeesi escaped from the hospital and fled with his wife and son across the desert into Pakistan to seek political asylum.

A few months later, he said, the secret police reached him again. Men with Iranian accents began calling his telephone, warning him to return to Iran and surrender.

"Do you think you're safe?' they asked me" in an e-mail message, Raeesi said. "We have a group for you. Don't make us send this group to get you."

Raeesi sent his family to shelter with friends, but he stayed in Quetta to pursue his plea for asylum with the U.N. refugee agency here.

On Feb. 7, men with guns kicked in the flimsy door of the grubby rented room that Raeesi shared with two other Iranian asylum-seekers. One roommate, Ahmed Mashoof, was killed in a volley of bullets. Raeesi and the other roommate escaped, scampering from a courtyard to the rooftop.

While enforcers of Iran's conservative ruling mullahs killed scores of dissidents overseas in the 1980s and '90s, the shooting last month was the first such attack in years. It has raised fears that Iran's secret police forces, emboldened by a widening crackdown on dissent at home, may resume hunting and killing dissidents abroad.

Human rights monitors and Iranian refugees say the case of Raeesi and his friends is a stark failure by the U.N. agency charged with protecting refugees. At the local office of the agency, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Raeesi told his story last year, gave officials copies of the e-mail threat and even showed them his feet, where scarred, new toenails are slowly replacing those ripped out by his torturers.

Still, the UNHCR office wrote to Raeesi in November, "there is no basis to conclude that you have a well-founded fear of persecution on return" to Iran. It rejected his appeals and those of his roommates.

For 17 years after Shia Muslim clerics led the revolt that overthrew Iran's U.S.-backed monarchy, the formal intelligence services and shadowy militias that help enforce the mullahs' rule assassinated Iranian dissidents in Europe, Asia and the United States.

Various counts put the known total anywhere from 60 to 100.

In 1996, a German judge investigating some of the killings issued an arrest warrant for Iran's intelligence minister.

Revulsion in Europe over the mob-style hits was hurting Iran diplomatically, said Mansour Farhang, a former Iranian ambassador who teaches politics at Bennington College in Vermont. At home, a vigorous pro-democracy movement, which led to the election of the liberal president, Muhammad Khatami, also forced the enforcement agencies into retreat, Farhang said, and assassinations of nonviolent dissidents appeared to have stopped.

Despite their retreat, the mullahs have clung to power, blocking the most important changes sought by Khatami and the reformists.

For the past five years, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the Revolutionary Guard militia and more informal groups loyal to the mullahs have stepped up intimidation and attacks on political dissidents and religious and ethnic minorities.

On Nov. 10, Amnesty International cited new reports of "around 25 Internet journalists and civil society activists arbitrarily arrested in recent weeks," saying it was evidence of "an alarming rise in human rights violations in Iran."

With the Quetta attack "the uptick in repression at home may now be leading to an uptick in killings abroad," said Allister Hodgett, an Amnesty International spokesman in Washington. A Pakistani intelligence official said security agencies here believe the attack was conducted either by Iran's intelligence ministry or by local gunmen it hired.

After the Feb. 7 attack, the UNHCR in Quetta failed to help Raeesi and the other survivor, Najibullah Naueri, find a safer refuge. For a week, the men lived in the bloodstained room. "The killers knew where we were, and they were free to come for us again," Raeesi said. UNHCR officials declined to discuss details of the case, but the agency's spokesman in Pakistan, Jack Redden, said higher-level officials in the agency had ordered a review.

Pakistani sources said that Sweden had expressed interest in providing asylum to Raeesi's family and to Naueri, who is a university student.

Pakistani officials say as many as 20,000 Iranians have settled in this country, mostly to escape harassment or the threat of arrest for their political, religious or ethnic affiliations. But UNHCR says it recognizes only 57 Iranians in Pakistan as refugees eligible for asylum.

In Turkey, too, Iranians say, the government and UNHCR give too little protection to Iranian refugees.

UNHCR is overstretched there because of the high numbers of applicants for asylum and because Turkey's government offers less help to Asian refugees than to Europeans, said Rupert Colville, a UNHCR spokesman in Geneva.

Iranian refugees in Turkey include many ethnic Kurds. Many in Pakistan, including Raeesi and Naueri, are from the Baluch ethnic group of Iran's southeast. Mashoof, the man who was killed, had been harassed by police for his links to the Bahai religious community, Raeesi said.

After living in fear in their room for a week after the attack, Raeesi and Naueri went to the UNHCR office and announced they would not leave until shelter was found for them. They spent that night in a police station and a few more in a hotel before a prominent leader within Pakistan's ethnic Baluch community took them in.

"We're safer now, and finally, they are taking our case more seriously," Raeesi said last week.