Seventeen months after his arrest, Dr. Ahmad Reza Jalali appeared in court for the first court time on Wednesday August 23. He was brought before the Revolutionary Court Judge Abolghasem Salavati, who is named on the European Union’s sanctions list for violations of human rights.
Jalali, an Iranian citizen with permanent residency in Sweden, is a physician and researcher specializing in medicine for disaster relief, and teaches at Vrije University Brussel (VUB) in Belgium. He has been working on disaster relief since 1999, and has been involved in more than 25 research projects. Most recently, he was working on a European project to develop training courses for EU-based strategic managers and professionals helping countries affected by natural disasters. At the same time, he had been working with the University of Eastern Piedmont in Italy to improve the performance of centers dealing with the aftermath of earthquakes and floods in underdeveloped countries.
He was arrested on April 24, 2016, just three days before he was to return home after visiting Iran at the invitation of Tehran University. His family were left uninformed about his whereabouts until a week after his arrest, when he was allowed to telephone them. He told them he had been detained and charged with “collaborating with an enemy state,” a charge he has consistently denied.
After his court appearance on August 23, Jalali was allowed to phone his wife Vida Mehran-Nia. “According to Ahmad Reza, they asked him a series of questions,” she said. “They said that he must appear at court for a second time and perhaps for a third time. The next session is set for September 24.”
According to Mehran-Nia, Jalali’s interrogators were present during the court session. “Ahmad Reza had complained against the interrogators and had said that they had forced him to confess while in solitary confinement with threats and by putting him under mental pressure. Most of the questions in the court were about this. Ahmad Reza told the court: ‘I retract whatever I have signed because I signed under severe mental duress and because they threatened the life of my family. I do not accept any of the charges.’”
Threatened with Execution before the Trial
Mehran-Nia does not know the details about any of the charges her husband has been forced to confess to — but she does know that the interrogators had threatened Jalali with execution before the trial. After he was verbally informed that Judge Salavati had sentenced him to death without a trial, Jalali protested by going on hunger strike. “He was on hunger strike once for 45 days and a second time for 43 days, with one week between the two,” his wife said. “Then they promised to reopen the case.”
Although Jalali’s trial is now underway, it is not clear how long the process will last or what the verdict will be. Mehran-Nia expressed relief that her husband was not insulted or humiliated as he has been in the past under interrogation.
Up to now, the Jalali family has asked three lawyers to represent the doctor, but the court has rejected two of them. First they appointed lawyer Mahmoud Alizadeh Tabatabaei, who has represented a number of high profile cases, including journalists who had been accused of being part of an “infiltration network” and dual Iranian-American nationals Siamak and Baquer Namazi. In February, IranWire contacted Alizadeh Tabatabaei, who confirmed that judiciary officials had not approved his appointment as the attorney for Jalali. “They say that, according to a proviso to Article 48 of the Penal Code Bylaws, during the investigation phase they only accept lawyers who have been approved by the judiciary chief,” Tabatabaei said. “I was not on that list, so during preliminary investigations, they did not accept me as the lawyer.”
The second lawyer Judge Salavati rejected was Zeinab Taheri. The third lawyer to be appointed is Dabir Daryabeigi, whom Salivati approved. “The first two lawyers were denied access to his case file and were not allowed to review it,” says Mehran-Nia, “but I heard that Mr. Daryabeigi has been allowed to access some of the files. And Ahmad Reza has not discharged the first two lawyers so that he can have their help too.”
Based in Sweden, Mehran-Nia pursues Jalali’s case through international organizations. In Tehran, Jalali’s parents follow the case through contact with his lawyers. “I have done everything that I could and have contacted everybody that I was able to, from the United Nations to the Swedish Embassy,” said Mehran-Nia. “I know that the universities with which Ahmad Reza worked are pursuing the matter at high levels and have even threatened to sever their scientific ties to Iran if he is not released as soon as possible. But I really do not know how to answer my five-year-old child who does not understand what is happening and only misses his father.” The couple has a 14-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son. “They have not seen their father for 17 months. They have been badly traumatized. I do part-time work to pay for our livelihood. Then I have to take care of the children and follow up on Ahmad Reza’s case.”
Many international human rights organizations including Amnesty International, and various European universities have made appeals in support of Ahmad Reza Jalali. His colleagues have written to Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, asking her to contact Islamic Republic officials and demand his release. Tens of thousands of people from around the world have signed a petition hosted on change.org
There have been some reports that Jalali had worked with an Israeli colleague on the treatment centers project, and that is why he had been accused of working with an “enemy state.” Mehran-Nia said, “when they heard about this charge the only thing his Italian colleagues could think of was that their team included an Israeli researcher. But we knew nothing about it. Many scientists from various countries work on university research projects but they are colleagues only in scientific work and have no other relationship.”
Is she optimistic about the outcome of the court process? “It has been such a long and difficult wait that I can no longer be optimistic,” she said. “Of course, I am not pessimistic either. The efforts by universities and international organizations give me comfort. But there is something that I know for sure: If the court was a just court, Ahmad Reza would not be tried. He has not done anything to be charged with, or to bring about a conviction.”