The below is an archived article first published by IranWire on August 9, 2021. It has been republished as part of our new series on transnational repression. Read more about the project here.
On New Year’s Eve, 2020, Jamshid Sharmahd became a grandfather.
The 66-year-old software engineer hasn’t yet had a chance to meet his baby granddaughter, Kiana. He’s not been able to see her face, count her fingers and toes, or even congratulate her mother and his eldest child, Gazelle.
Instead, the news was broken to him by telephone on one of the strictly-monitored prison calls that now constitute his only contact with the world outside. The family had no idea where the call was placed from – “in Tehran” or “not in Tehran” is all they’re permitted to know. Nor do they know how many agents of the Islamic Republic of Iran were in the room with him, listening in.
On August 1, 2020, the Iranian intelligence ministry announced it had Jamshid in custody. Days earlier, he had disappeared on a layover in Dubai. The Iranian-born German citizen, an elderly expat father-of-two turned unlikely spokesman for an underground, sometimes armed Iranian resistance group, had been on the regime’s hitlist for more than a decade.
Twelve months on from the abduction, his family – and by all accounts, German and US officials - are no closer to understanding what the Islamic Republic actually plans to do with Jamshid Sharmahd. No charges have been publicly brought against him, and he is still not allowed visitors. Speaking to IranWire on the anniversary of her father’s capture, Gazelle Sharmahd, 39, said all the desperate family could do was keep making noise about the case.
“My father taught us to be courageous,” she said. “Being brave doesn’t mean we’re not afraid.”
The Unlikely Opposition Spokesman
Born in Tehran in March 1955, Jamshid Sharmahd spent his childhood between Iran and Germany. He came back to Iran around the time of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and got married in 1980. After the birth of their first child, he emigrated to Germany for good, where he got an engineering degree and set up a software business. Then at the age of 50, he and his family moved to Glendora, California.
After Jamshid’s abduction last summer, Iranian state media highlighted his years-long affiliation with an organization called Kingdom of Assembly Iran, also known as Tondar (Thunder). Tondar is designated a terror group by the Islamic Republic and Jamshid was described by PressTV as the “ringleader”, accused of "direct[ing] armed and terrorist acts in Iran from America."
The truth, Gazelle says, is more complex. Tondar had a TV station in the US and in the early 2000s, Jamshid had noticed none of its materials were archived. He offered to help them set up a website and ended up providing technical support. Then in 2007, after Tondar’s founder Frood Fouladvand was kidnapped in Turkey, he began to join in with its online publishing and broadcasting.
This was only ever meant to be behind the scenes and uncredited, Gazelle said. But then a technical glitch – ironically on the very platform he had built himself – outed Jamshid as a Tondar contributor on the public-facing part of the website.
What happened next, Gazelle told IranWire, was typical of her father. “When he got exposed, instead of being fearful for his life, he said: ‘Oh well, now I’ve gone public I might as well use it to help people.’ He embraced the misfortune and glided into this role of spokesperson.”
Sharmahd was a good speaker. He also passed the guileless, altruistic gene onto his children: at school, Gazelle said, she and her brother would get in trouble for speaking up out of turn on behalf of their classmates. But this same gravitas would also draw the attention of the regime.
In 2009, according to the family’s US lawyer, Jason Poblete, Jamshid was the subject of an early assassination plot on US soil. People suspected to be agents of the Islamic Republic came to their home but the hitman hired by the regime to kill Jamshid, Mohammad Reza Sadeghnia, got cold feet and went to local police, confessing to being an agent of the Islamic Republic. He was jailed for a year but then disappeared in Iran in 2010 after being granted furlough to visit his ailing father. US authorities told the family they should probably not leave the country.
It came less than a year after a bomb had exploded in a mosque in Shiraz, killing 12 people and injuring more than 200 others. The Islamic Republic blamed Tondar for the attack and three of its members – one of whom, 19-year-ol Arash Rahmanipour, was represented by now-jailed human rights advocate Nasrin Sotoudeh – were executed by hanging in 2010. They were the only two to be sentenced to death in a group of 100 tried after the post-2009 election urest.
Grounded by Corona, then Sent by Red Tape to Dubai
Dubai is not a safe place for marked Iranians in exile. Businessman Abbas Yazdi disappeared in 2013 on a trip to the UAE in a widely-suspected kidnapping by the regime. Gazelle Sharmahd says in no uncertain terms that her father would never have gone there voluntarily.
In a bid to revive his software business, Jamshid and his son Shayan, 33, had gone to Mumbai in March 2020 – but then got stuck there in an Airbnb for three months when the pandemic struck. Shayan made it back to the US, but Jamshid’s visa left him stranded in Europe. Eventually, he decided to strike out for Mumbai again.
At the time, Emirates Airlines flights to India included a stop-off in Dubai. The family were worried about it, Gazelle said, but “pretty much nobody knew he was there”. To quell their anxiety, Jamshid had installed a location-tracking app on his phone and walked around his hotel room, telling them: “Can you see me? Can you see me? See, everything will be fine.”
That was the last time they saw him. Sometime between July 28 and August 1, Jamshid was spirited out of Dubai by agents of the regime. The first they heard of his fate was an announcement by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, trumpeting its capture of a “terrorist ringleader” in what it described as a “complex operation”. A video clip showing Jamshid blindfolded and “confessing” to the 2008 bomb attack was then aired on PressTV, the English-language arm of IRIB.
Then, nothing. For two months, the Sharmahd family had no word from their father – and, Gazelle said, they all assumed the worst. Pregnant since the end of March, she almost lost her baby due to the stress. “They’d tried to assassinate him in the US,” she said. “How could he still be alive when they had their hands on him?”
Two months later, on her mother’s birthday, Jamshid called for the first time. Gazelle, a registered nurse with the non-profit, was on the hospital ward on the frontlines of Covid-19 when she heard the news. “I was running through the hospital,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t too late.”
The ‘Top-Secret’ Case Turned Into a TV Drama
The status of Jamshid Sharmahd is being kept tightly under wraps by the regime – more so than those of most other dual-national detainees. In his very intermittent, officially-sanctioned phone calls, isn’t allowed to divulge his location or tell his family much about his treatment.
“We can hear guards in the background,” Gazelle said. “He’ll say ‘There’s five people here with me’, or ’There are 10 people with me’. It always sounds like they’re wanting something from him. We try to read between the lines, listen to his tone, and try to figure out what’s going on in there.”
Jamshid has Parkinson’s disease and on one occasion, told the family he wasn’t receiving his medication on time. “He gets these horrible body aches,” Gazelle said. “My dad’s the kind of person who could be in the worst situation, and you couldn’t tell. He’ll always make the best of it. But even on these phone calls, he tells us he’s lost 40lbs. He’s 6’3 and he weighs 60 kilos now. He also said they’re taking out his teeth. We don’t know what that’s about.”
Jamshid was denied access to a lawyer for months. An Iranian lawyer hired by the family in October 2020 was prevented from seeing him. Eventually, he was assigned a judiciary-approved defense attorney: Dabir Daryabeigi, the same lawyer widely thought to have worked hand-in-glove with prosecutors to secure a death sentence for Swedish-Iranian scientist Ahmad Reza Jalali.
So far Daryabeigi’s only contact with the Sharmahd family has been to attempt to extort cash from them. He told them that he – a salaried Iranian government employee – was a busy man and would need an additional payment of $250,000 to read Jamshid’s case files, which he claimed runs to 10 binders.
Before this bizarre overture, Iranian lawyers and German consular officials had been denied access to so much as the case notes, let alone Jamshid himself. The case was said to be “top secret”: so much so that 12 months down the line, the exact charges against him have not yet been stated.
But the judiciary’s insistence on the case’s sensitivity did not stop Iranian state TV airing several propaganda programs featuring Jamshid’s forced confessions, interspersed with video clips of his broadcasts for Tondar. In December 2020 a mention of his case – together with fresh allegations that he had worked covertly for the US and Israel – even found its way into an IRIB-made fictional TV show, Safe House.
“It’s mind-blowing,” Gazelle said, “that the regime would go to such lengths as a TV series to try to brainwash people. First of all, they’re not going to be successful; the majority of Iranians know the regime well, so it’s ridiculous. Secondly, if it’s a top-secret security case, why are they making a soap opera out of it?”
An International Crime, Getting Worse by the Day
The family are also mystified by the fact that no charges have been brought against Jamshid. “When we asked the regime lawyer,” Gazelle said, “he told us a trial was ‘nowhere in sight’. If you’ve followed someone for 12 years and gone to the trouble of kidnapping them, you’d think there would then be a trial.”
For her, the contradictions of the case, the opacity and lack of decisive action all add up to one thing: “My father is a hostage. He has been a hostage ever since he was taken.”
At least 16 dual nationals are currently in jail in Iran, all on trumped-up or fabricated charges. The regime has a long track record of taking foreign citizens hostage in a bid to secure either money, as in the case of British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, or prisoner swaps with foreign states, as in the cases of the recently-released British-Australian Kylie Moore-Gilbert, Lebanese-American Nizar Zakka and Chinese-American Xiyue Wang.
Amnesty International has sounded the alarm over Jamshid’s case several times over the past 12 months. The circumstances of his detention, the human rights organization says, amount to enforced disappearance: a crime against humanity under international law. For Gazelle Sharmahd, not knowing where her father is means that “the original kidnap is still going on”.
Jamshid and his wife marked their 40th wedding anniversary last year, more than 7,000 miles apart. The birth of Kiana, Gazelle said, probably saved her own life because “otherwise I might be on the next plane to Iran myself. It gave me so much hope, but also it breaks my heart because he can’t see her or touch her, and she’s growing up so fast.”
The 12-month anniversary of Jamshid’s capture in Dubai also hit the family hard. For now, all they can do is wait for the Iranian regime to either show its hand, or else release him. “He dedicated his life to giving others a voice, and taught us to stand up when something was wrong,” Gazelle said. “Now there’s no question. We have to speak up about this, because his voice has been taken.”