Two more infamous figures in Iranian public life were named in the British parliament today as having aided and abetted in Tehran's criminal practice of hostage-taking.
Ameneh Sadat Zabihpour, a long-time “journalist” for Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, and former IRGC Intelligence Organization chief Hossein Taeb, are among 10 individuals the UK Foreign Office is being asked to consider sanctioning for documented human rights violations.
In a debate in the House of Commons, the lower house of the British legislature, on Thursday, Labour MP Chris Bryant told the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Magnitsky Sanctions: “This year Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anousheh Ashouri were finally allowed to return to the UK following years of detention and human rights abuses. Those responsible for these abuses have yet to be held accountable and continue to persecute people, holding them hostage for political gain."
Last September the Free Nazanin Campaign and the charity REDRESS submitted evidence on 10 Iranians involved in hostage-taking to the UK Foreign Office. The government was asked to consider them for Magnitsky sanctions, which target individual perpetrators with measures such as asset freezes and travel bans.
Three of the others were named in the UK last year: Ali Ghanaatkar, a former Evin Prison Court official tasked with compiling cases against would-be hostages; Gholamreza Ziaei, a former head of Evin Prison already sanctioned by the EU; and Ali Rezvani, who like Zabihpour holds a dual role at the IRIB helping manufacture domestic consent for Tehran’s hostage diplomacy.
Ultra-conservative TV presenter Ameneh Sadat Zabihpour Ahmadi is a household name in Iran. Born in Tehran in 1984, she has been the IRIB’s “Reporter on Political and Security Affairs” for more than 15 years. In that time she has also fronted some of the state broadcaster’s most horrific propaganda content linked to arbitrary detentions and hostage-taking.
This has included extracting forced confessions from tortured activists in her capacity as an “interrogator-journalist”: a term now in regular currency in Iran for reporters who work hand in glove with the security agencies to frame detainees.
In 2018, young civil rights advocate Sepideh Gholian became one of them. The citizen journalist was held and tortured for 30 days in Dezful over her support for striking sugar factory workers in Khuzestan.
Ameneh Sadat Zabihpour visited Sepideh in the detention center, and pressed her to read out a pre-prepared script “confessing” to her part in a fictitious plot against the regime. In her prison diaries at that time, published by IranWire in 2020, Sepideh wrote of the center’s layout: “Room number three is the place they bring Ameneh Sadat Zabihpour to extract confessions from us.”
In an audio file received by IranWire earlier, in September 2019, Sepideh had described being left alone on the floor of an interrogation room for 16 hours, listening to a young man being beaten and screaming in an adjacent cell. Then, she said, “The interrogator returned. ‘Okay, so you don’t want to cooperate?’ he said. ‘If you so much as open your mouth, we will broadcast all your [forced] confessions on 20:30.’
“I told the truth and what the interrogator had promised came true. They aired their ‘documentary’. Security agencies have planted a nightmare in my head. In this nightmare, I cannot stop hearing the sounds of torture, and at every moment I am waiting for the IRIB and its affiliated news agencies to accuse me of another conspiracy.”
The footage taken from “interviews” with Sepideh and fellow activist Esmail Bakhshi was used in January 2019 to incriminate them in a “documentary” on the IRIB’s nightly 20:30 news program: the most-watched in the country, and one regularly used to mislead the Iranian public on political detainees. Sepideh lodged a complaint with the IRIB over Zabihpour’s involvement, which was dismissed hours later without an explanation. She was then hit with fresh charges of “spreading lies”.
In August 2020, Zabihpour also took a forced confession from Fatemeh Davand, a Kurdish-Iranian mother-of-three who had been arrested in August 2020 for taking part in Iran’s nationwide November 2019 protests. The text, according to the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights, was forcibly read out “in a closed room in the presence of male security officers”.
Zabihpour has also appeared in segments run on the IRIB to justify the detention of dual nationals used as hostages by the Islamic Republic to extort money or concessions. In another pseudo-documentary that aired in November 2017, she knowingly misrepresented the content of documents stolen from Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to suggest she was in Iran for “nefarious purposes” instead of on holiday. Separately she narrated a defamatory “report” that smeared the Chinese-American history scholar Xiyue Wang, who was held hostage for three years from 2016 to 2019.
In February 2018, the Iranian-Canadian environmentalist Kavous Seyed-Emami died in prison just weeks after his arrest along with several other conservation workers. To this day his family and many others do not believe the judiciary’s claim that he died by suicide. Days after his death, Zabihpour claimed on air that Seyed-Emami had been a spy.
The IRGC-IO Chief
Until last month, when he was dismissed after 13 years in an apparently symbolic reshuffle, Hossein Taeb oversaw the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization (IRGC-IO): a deep-state rival to the Ministry of Intelligence. During his tenure, Human Rights Watch notes, “the IRGC Intelligence Organization as the leading security agency in repressing dissent and perceived threats to autocratic control… extending its reach to foreign and dual nationals.”
The IRGC-IO has instigated countless violent, targeted raids on the homes of Iranian civil rights activists, confiscating their belongings and routinely “disappearing” victims to mostly off-grid detention centers, without a warrant or judicial oversight, where torture and forcing confessions are commonplace. This was notably the case after the 2009, 2017, 2018 and November 2019 protests. The body also controls a section of Evin Prison, Ward 2A, where most political prisoners are held and interrogated in the early period of their detention.
The same body has also run politically-motivated arrest campaigns against foreign and dual nationals. Amongst others the IRGC-IO was responsible for the hostage-taking of dual nationals Jason Rezaian in 2014, Nizar Zakka in 2015, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Karen Vafadari and Afarin Neyssari in 2016, Kylie Moore-Gilbert in 2018, and Fariba Adelkhah and Baquer Namazi in 2019. The IRGC-owned Fars News Agency and key IRGC media affiliate Tasnim News Agency are two of Iran’s most notorious media outlets that disseminated false information to justify these cases and others like them.
Taeb is already sanctioned in the UK, the US, the EU, Canada, Australia and Switzerland for his role as commander of both the IRGC-IO and the paramilitary Basij for “the torture, rape, arbitrary detention and killing of Iranian citizens” in the post-election crackdown on Iran’s 2009 pro-democracy protests. The well-known political prisoner Iraj Mesdaghi has described him as one of the regime’s most dangerous figures who, “thanks to his closeness to the Leadership and [the Supreme Leader’s son] Mojtaba Khamenei, holds the most sensitive security post in the country.”