Thursday, August 31, 2006

Concerns Over Forced Confession Cloud Iranian-Canadian Academic's Release

Joel Kom, Ottawa Citizen:
An Iranian-Canadian man held in a Tehran prison for four months without charges was released Wednesday, but news of his freedom was tempered by reports of a supposed confession made to national media shortly after his release. That confession, friends and family believed, was likely part of the conditions of Ramin Jahanbegloo's release from the notorious Evin prison for political prisoners.

While they were relieved to hear the former University of Toronto professor would be reunited with his wife and young daughter at his Tehran home, they were alarmed to learn he showed up at the offices of the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) almost immediately after being freed from prison.

Behrouz Kia, Jahanbegloo's uncle, said in an interview he quickly realized why his nephew went to ISNA after reading published comments from the country's top prosecutor, Ghorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi.

''He said (Jahanbegloo) had been released, that he had confessed to being an American spy and that he would confess on television and in the newspapers,'' Kia said from his home in Istanbul. READ MORE

The apparent confession, which Jahanbegloo's supporters believe he was ordered to make, was a sign the Iranian government was still exercising some control over Jahanbegloo, Kia said.

''He will return home, but I don't think they will let him go completely for a long time,'' he said. He didn't believe Jahanbegloo had been tortured, he added, but Jahanbegloo's mother Kia's sister had said her son was being kept in a tiny cell.

Jahanbegloo's release spelled the end of a four-month ordeal for the world-renowned scholar and philosopher. He was detained April 27 at the Tehran airport for allegedly plotting to foment a non-violent revolution in Iran. He was never formally charged throughout his prison stay.

Jahanbegloo, who has spent time at both Harvard and Paris's Sorbonne, has written repeatedly on democracy's chances in his native country and ran the Tehran-based Cultural Research Bureau, a non-governmental organization.

Friends and family said Jahanbegloo was released Wednesday afternoon in Tehran, but they had yet to speak to him or his wife. Maryam Aghvami, a Toronto-based freelance journalist and president of Journalists in Exile, said an employee at the news agency who saw Jahanbegloo told her the man was visibly thinner.

''Ramin also said that prison was hard and the interrogators were nice,'' she said, adding an interview was due to be made public soon.

A woman who answered the phone Wednesday evening at Jahanbegloo's Tehran home told CanWest News Service ''we cannot speak now'' and hung up. Other calls to his family in Iran went unanswered.

Jahanbegloo's supporters, who have been vocal in keeping his case in the international spotlight, said he was released earlier than they expected. But Hadi Ghaemi, a top Iran analyst with Human Rights Watch, said the timing of the release was meant to deflect attention from today's United Nations Security Council deadline for Iran to cease its uranium enrichment program.

That Jahanbegloo showed up at the news agency, a semi-independent organization with credibility in Iran, was an attempt by the Iranian government to make it appear he showed up on his own accord.

''It's very questionable why he would go directly from the prison gate to a news agency,'' Ghaemi said in an interview from New York City.

Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay said he was ''personally relieved'' for Jahanbegloo, adding he hoped the release was the result of international intervention, Canada's included.

''I hope this may be a step in the right direction on engagement with Iran on diplomatic matters,'' he said in an interview from Nova Scotia.

Jahanbegloo would be welcome in Canada, MacKay added, although Canadian officials were allowing him private time with his family before they spoke to him. MacKay said he didn't know any details about a supposed confession, but expected Jahanbegloo would want to speak publicly soon.

Payam Akhavan, a law professor at McGill University in Montreal and an Iranian human rights advocate, said various sources told him Jahanbegloo was ordered to make a confession in prison that implicated political adversaries of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That confession was being used to extract political concessions, he said, which is why it hasn't been aired.

"Once you air it publicly, then you can't use it for blackmail anymore because the cat's out of the bag," he said in an interview from Denmark.

Nader Hashemi, a Middle East politics professor at Chicago's Northwestern University who studied with Jahanbegloo at the University of Toronto from 1999 to 2001, said he also heard that high-ranking Iranian government officials had intervened on Jahanbegloo's behalf.

As for Jahanbegloo's condition, Hashemi hoped he would find his friend in good spirits after four months of detention.

''I know that Ramin has been in solitary confinement, and different people emerge from that in different ways,'' he said.