"Documentary The Spy Academy, on the subject of the abuse of scientific and academic settings by spy agencies, is to be broadcast on IRIB Channel 5."
This was the news published by most of Iran’s state news agencies at noon on Friday, July 23. According to the Revolutionary Guards-affiliated Tasnim News Agency, The Spy Academy will “the first time, by going behind the scenes of the assassinations of nuclear scientists, narrate how they were identified through espionage in academic centers."
The program aired as planned on Friday night, on Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting’s Channel 5. But despite the publicity and hype, there was frankly nothing special about it. The Spy Academy sought to “prove” that experts involved in Iran's nuclear program had been identified by spies under the guise of students and university professors, and were ultimately the targets of assassination by the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad.
What did catch the eye, however, was the program’s mention of Ahmad Reza Jalali, an Iranian-Swedish physician and researcher who has been arbitrarily detained in Iran since 2016. About two minutes of a previously-televised, forced confession by Jalali featured in the middle of the “documentary”. The confession, extracted under torture, has also been broadcast several times by Islamic Republic Radio in the past.
Following repeated scandals involving the use of forced confessions on TV, including another IRIB documentary called Terror Club and the airing of Maziar Ebrahimi’s “confession” – which prompted MPs to push for a ban on such broadcasts in 2019 –much of the Iranian viewing public no longer trusts these kinds of on-camera admissions by political prisoners. Instead, the inclusion of Jalali’s tape prompted a fresh wave of concern about the jailed scientist’s state of health.
Why Don’t Iranians Trust Televized Confessions?
At 7.58am on January 12, 2010, Massoud Ali-Mohammadi, a professor of particle physics at the University of Tehran and a key contributor to the Islamic Republic's nuclear program, was killed when a booby-trapped motorbike exploded in his front yard in northern Tehran.
The incident marked the beginning of a chain of bizarre incidents that concluded with several more deaths of nuclear scientists. Other, more sporadic assassinations took place in subsequent years, with the most recent high-profile killing being that of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on the highway near Damavand, on November 27, 2020.
Two and a half years after the killing of Ali-Mohammadi and others, on June 14, 2012, the Ministry of Intelligence issued an official statement announcing the identification and arrest of the "main perpetrators" of the assassinations. It referred to the "identification of a number of Israeli intelligence officers", without naming individuals. Later, based on forced confessions by some of those arrested, the IRIB broadcast a documentary called Terror Club.
Maziar Ebrahimi was one of the detainees who featured in the documentary. On camera, he said that he had been in charge of the team that killed nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari, a and that he had also been involved in the assassination of Massoud Ali-Mohammadi. The then-Minister of Intelligence, Haidar Moslehi, also accused the group of collaborating with the United States, Britain and Israel.
After the documentary aired, obvious discrepancies in Ebrahimi’s “testimony” – which had been fabricated for him by the Ministry – infuriated the IRGC intelligence officer in charge of questioning him and ultimately led to the charges being dropped. But he remained behind bars for another 26 months before finally being released in 2015.
Ebrahimi later shared the shocking story of his capture and forced confession to BBC Persian. Not only was he not executed, he said, but the Intelligence Ministry apologized to him and others jailed in the case and he was asked to leave Iran.
The TV confession itself, Ebrahimi said, had been extracted from him after 40 days of torture. “During that time,” he told the BBC, “I endured more than 600 blows from cables to my broken leg, in addition to the cables that struck other parts of my body. I was then kept in solitary confinement for 16 months, without a visit or even a phone call to my family. The vertebrae in my back were bent. I was ready to accept any accusation these gentlemen put to me to evade further torture.”
His brother Babak Ebrahimi, who was also arrested for allegedly collaborating in the killings and running an “international spy network” for Israel, also later spoke out. Another defendant, Nader Kohan Nouri, was released in 2014 and left Iran, later telling IranWire of the harrowing five months of torture he suffered that made him “confess”. All of these defendants were sentenced to death in the Iranian Revolutionary Court by Judge Abolghassem Salavati.
The group’s revelations caused a stir in Iran. A group of MPs demanded answers from the Ministry of Intelligence and even tabled a motion to see televised forced confessions banned outright. Finally government spokesperson Ali Rabie conceded: "The investigators in this case were not anti-espionage experts, but experts in other fields. Also, these people have been apologized to and appeased." And that, as far as the regime was concerned, was that.
Majid Jamali Fashi: A Life Lost to the Islamic Republic’s “Damage Control” Drive
Majid Jamali Fashi was an Iranian athlete and international bronze medalist in kickboxing. He was hanged on the morning of Tuesday, May 15, 2012, after being convicted of assassinating Massoud Ali-Mohammadi. The IRIB also broadcast his own “confession”, in which he had agreed he was guilty of the killing.
Subsequent revelations by Maziar Ebrahimi and others have led to the widespread assumption that Jamali Fashi was innocent. The case against him was similarly devoid of hard evidence and his “confession” appeared coerced.
After his execution, the IRIB’s notorious 20:30 program broadcast what it said was a picture of an Israeli passport bearing a photo of Jamali Fashi. But several journalists reported that this was a photoshopped image of an Israeli passport easily accessible on Wikipedia – and so badly done that the artist had not bothered to change the seals, stamps, date of issue or expiration date. In the tacked-on photograph, Jamali Fashi was not even facing the camera in a manner that would pass muster for an official ID document.
Massoud Molavi Vardanjani, another former Iranian scientist who had since moved to Turkey, later sent a message to Maziar Ebrahimi claiming that the assassinations of his colleagues had been co-ordinated by Iran’s own Intelligence Ministry. This allegation could not be proved, but Vardanjani himself was then shot dead on November 14, 2019, in the Sisli district of Istanbul. Turkish officials have since pointed the finger at Iranian diplomatic staff in Istanbul, working on the orders of the intelligence services.
Ahmad Reza Jalali’s Life Hanging in the Balance
Despite all the controversy, the IRIB pressed ahead with broadcasting Ahmad Reza Jalali's forced confession on Friday night. Jalali was arrested on April 24, 2016 while visiting Iran to attend a scientific conference, and was later transferred to Evin Prison. He found himself charged with espionage and having links to hostile states. By all accounts, his only “offence” was having refused an earlier solicitation to spy on behalf of Iran in Sweden, in his capacity as a disaster medicine expert.
But in Iran, Jalali was then accused of having had a role in the nuclear scientists’ killings and sentenced to death in Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court, presided over once again by Judge Salavati, on charges of moharebeh [war against God] and "cooperation with the Israeli government". The sentence has since been upheld twice by the Supreme Court.
The first time his “confessions” were aired on TV in 2017, Ahmad Reza Jalali stated in an audio file released from prison that December that he had been forced to “admit” to the crimes on camera after a protracted period in solitary confinement.
Vida Mehrannia, his wife, told IranWire in November 2020 that he had been isolated in his cell for three months prior to the confession being taped. “They threatened that if he did not cooperate, they would keep him there until he died, and no one would know,” she said. “They said they would kill his five-year-old son. He was taken out of Evin Prison in the middle of the night, blindfolded.
“They wrote the script, and said they would make the video and then release him. They said the video had nothing to do with his case and they needed it for something else. Ahmad Reza said that if he said a word wrongly, they would shout, insult him, turn off the camera, and start filming again from the beginning."
According to information received by IranWire, Ahmad Reza Jalali has more recently been moved from Evin Prison and is likely to now be in solitary confinement in Rajaei Shahr Prison. His mother died in Iran from Covid-19 on Thursday, July 15 and his family say he was denied contact with her for nine months prior to her death.
Concerns about Ahmad Reza Jalali’s health have escalated into alarm over the past 12 months. The Swedish government conferred Swedish citizenship on him last year, but talks on the case have been sluggish and he is still being denied the right to contact his family in Sweden too. The rebroadcast of his forced confession is therefore another cause for serious concern.