Lawyer and human rights activist Mehrangiz Kar and her family endured years of persecution by the Iranian authorities, and her story ended in anguish when her husband, Siamak Pourzand, killed himself in 2011 after years of torment. She told IranWire that watching The Treacherous Host, IranWire’s new film about Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese technology expert jailed in Iran for four years, brought painful memories and regret flooding back. Nikar Zakka’s story has a happy ending, but such a resolution was never possible for Kar and her daughters, she says.
"Watching the documentary affected me very much,” she said. “I know very well the situation that Mr. Zakka describes. I was in a less difficult situation than him, and my husband was in a much more difficult situation."
In 2000, Mehrangiz Kar was interrogated by the judiciary after returning from a conference in Germany entitled “Iran after the Elections," also known as the "Berlin Conference,” where she had spoken about the need for constitutional reform in the Islamic Republic. She spent two months in Evin Prison, and was then sentenced to four years in prison by the third branch of the Revolutionary Court. She was released early on medical grounds and left Iran in 2001. But her husband, journalist Siamak Pourzand, stayed in the country and was arrested later that year. Like so many other journalists, activists, academics and other people targeted by the regime, Pourzand was forced to confess on television. He was released on medical grounds but remained under house arrest. After years of depression following his incarceration and harsh treatment, Pourzand jumped out of his apartment window in 2011.
Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen based in the United States and an expert in information technology, traveled to Iran on September 15, 2015 at the invitation of Shahindokht Molavardi, who was Vice President for Women and Family Affairs at the time, to participate in the International Conference on Women in Sustainable Development. He was arrested on the street on September 18. In September 2016, Judge Abolghasem Salavati, head of Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court, sentenced him to 10 years in prison and a fine of $4.2 million for "spying for America."
Nizar Zakka spent 18 months in solitary confinement and part of his sentence in Ward 4 at Evin Prison, along with prisoners American researcher Xiao Wang and Swedish-based physician Ahmad Reza Jalali. In June 2019, the United States and Iran reached a prisoner exchange agreement, and Zakka was released in exchange for Negar Qods Kani, an Iranian prisoner in the United States. In the documentary The Treacherous Host, in an interview with Maziar Bahari, Zakka narrates what happened during his interrogations and four years in prison.
"Seeing this film, I remembered Siamak's words during his release," Kar says. "Siamak, who was elderly, was forced to stand for hours and kept in a cold storage room for hours. Siamak told me that then, at the point where he felt he was about to die, they would open the door of the storage, wrap him in two or three blankets and take him directly for interrogation."
Wrong Place, Wrong Time
Kar was struck by Zakka’s description of what interrogators told him when he was about to be released: "Forgive us, you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.” She says this is a key point and says a lot about the agents of the Revolutionary Guards and the way they conduct their operations. "The interrogators' words about Nizar Zakka being in the wrong place at the wrong time are absolutely true. They had nothing to do with Nizar; Nizar had traveled to Iran before. But at that time, according to the scenario set up by the Guards, the government of Shahindokht Molavardi and Hassan Rouhani had to be defamed. Ms. Molaverdi was dealing with something about which the regime is very sensitive and which is incompatible with Islam: gender justice and equality. Putting a stain on Ms. Molaverdi’s reputation, on someone who is part of the regime itself, was not an easy task. Nizar made it easier for them.
"The wrong time and place for Nizar was attending a conference about women at the height of the conflict between the two factions [the Revolutionary Guards and the Rouhani administration]. In fact, Nizar became a pawn, a way of reducing Ms. Molaverdi's power in the government by arresting him and accusing him of spying for the United States. Elsewhere in the documentary, Nizar says that his interrogators took him to buy a rug and apologized, saying he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. They meant they wanted to knock Ms. Molaverdi and the government down a notch; 'we had no better tool than you,' they meant. 'We made the scenario and put you in the middle of it. Now forgive us and make it halal.'” The agents wanted the ordeal to be resolved, a closed issue that had no long-lasting moral consequences.
But the bitter irony for Mehrangiz Kar is that they did not make the demand for this moral legality public: "If Nizar had not said these things in this film, we would never have understood that the Revolutionary Guards apologized and bought a carpet for him to ingratiate themselves with him."
As lawyer and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi has said, there are at least 35 dual nationals currently held in Iranian prisons, and probably more. The number of Iranian political prisoners is much higher, and impossible to know. ”The detention of most political and ideological prisoners and dual nationals is based on a predetermined scenario,” Mehrangiz Kar says. “They create the scenario and then wait for their prey to put it into action. They also link their subject to the ‘enemy,’ the United States and the West. If you remember, at that time Mr. Ali Khamenei criticized gender justice in one of his speeches, and with the arrest of Mr. Zakka, the phrase 'gender equality’ was forgotten and fell out of discourse."
Following Nizar Zakka's arrest in Tehran, some websites linked to Iran’s hardliner faction published a photo of Shahindokht Molaverdi next to Nizar Zakka at the International Conference on Women's Role in Sustainable Development, and accused her of having relations with "an American spy."
"These websites muddy the water," Molaverdi wrote on a Telegram channel regarding the photograph of her with Nizar Zakka. "We should seek refuge in God from a time when everything is viewed through the lens of politics and when morality is also politicized, instead of our politics becoming moral," she added.
"My children and I suffered for exactly nine and a half years outside Iran, and Siamak suffered alone inside Iran,” Kar says. “My dream had always been that we would go to the airport and I would see Lily and Azadeh hug Siamak. It was my greatest wish that they embrace their father after all this suffering. But it ended in tragedy.”
As Nizar Zakka’s ordeal and her husband’s tragedy has shown, Kar says, imprisoned foreign or dual nationals usually fare better than Iranian citizens.
Why Didn’t Molaverdi Resign?
One of the pivotal points of The Treacherous Host is when Maziar Bahari and Nizar Zakka attempt to speak to Shahindokht Molaverdi, the woman who brought Nizar Zakka to Iran. After several attempts, they get through to her. Molaverdi reiterates several times that it was not her fault and that she and the Rouhani government were kept in the dark regarding Nizar Zakka's arrest and charges.
"I believe her but I criticize it,” says Kar. “It is not good to hear from a government official that she did not know or could not do anything. The most important question to be asked in the face of such an argument is: ‘when you realized you could not do anything and no one was listening to you, why did you not resign and step aside?’
"I use an example from my own experience to clarify the situation. When Mr. Mohammad Khatami was president, he once came to Harvard University to attend a conference. I was there too. One day he saw me and said, ‘Are you Mehrangiz?’ I was amazed at how quickly he recognized me. I said yes. Then he said very clearly, ‘Mehrangiz, We did not arrest Siamak.’ I said, ‘Does it matter? A family has been ruined. The government of the Islamic Republic is a combination of you and the rest.' He said, ‘Give me your phone number, I will call you in three months to come to Iran.’ I did not believe it at all. I did not trust this, but I gave him my number. Honestly, for those of us who are the victims of the Islamic Republic, what difference does it make whether a member of the country’s powerful circle knew it or not? Ms. Molaverdi says she only signed the invitation form for the guests, which included Mr. Zakka, and that she did not know him. Assuming we accept this, it is still not true when a government official says that there was nothing we could do."
At the same time, Mehrangiz Kar says Shahindokht Molaverdi spoke with politeness and bravery in The Treacherous Host, however indirectly. "Although Ms. Molaverdi does not explicitly condemn Zakka's detention, she also has the courage to say that we were completely unaware of his charges. In my opinion, she is a woman from the same government structure. In a short, polite, indirect but courageous interview, she talks about the presence of two ruling systems in Iran — one ruling system that is basically not aware of the work of another part of the ruling system, and even if it is, it cannot oppose it. She indirectly says that there are two governments here: a government that has weapons, that is a torturer, and that can kidnap people on the streets and do anything illegal, and another government that cannot say anything."
The Duty to Restore Dignity
In the documentary, Nizar Zakka says that before his release, his interrogators dressed him in new clothes and insisted that they buy him a carpet as a souvenir from Iran. During the purchase, he was told he should forgive them and they issued an apology of sorts and said they had made a mistake.
Nizar Zakka explains he just wanted the ordeal to end. He wanted to return home, so he accepted everything they said and the carpet.
"The Iranian government uses this fear of a prisoner to its advantage,” Mehrangiz Kar says. “They say, ‘we arrested you by mistake,’ but they do not give any other legal explanation for this mistake. No damages, no restoration of dignity and, most importantly, no legal documentation that he was mistakenly detained for four years.”
Kar says this clearly shows the corrupt illegality of Iran’s judicial system. "In all judicial systems, if a person is wrongly arrested, they [authorities] will legally apologize and he or she would have his or her dignity restored. He or she will also be compensated for the amount of time he or she has been in prison by mistake. However, these legal procedures do not apply to Nizar and any other prisoner who has been arrested in a scenario without a specific crime. They are illegally detaining people and, and at all stages, they use the prisoner's fear to their advantage.
Kar says her experience over the years as "a lawyer, defendant, prisoner and victim” and her time away from Iran has shown her the depth of the Iranian judicial system’s corruption. ”I have come to the conclusion that the validity of the law in Iran is a means of suppressing the dissidents and critics, not a tool for providing justice.”