Activists condemn Iran’s ‘hostage-taking’ of foreigners

Activists say Iran is pursuing a policy of brazen hijacking of foreigners to force concessions from the West, with more Western nationals arrested and others facing execution.

Activists have accused Iran of implementing a 40-year system of hostage policy from the earliest days of the Islamic Republic, beginning with the siege of the U.S. embassy in Tehran from 1979 to 1981, after the shah was expelled.

France said on Thursday that two of its citizens had been detained in Iran, sources said they were the spouses of French teachers’ union officials and union members, with the foreign ministry condemning “groundless arrests”.

Meanwhile, Swedish-Iranian academic Ahmadreza Djalali is at risk of execution, with media reports saying he will be executed on May 21 for his 2017 espionage conviction, which his family strongly denies.

Iran denies any such hostage-taking policy and insists that all foreigners are tried according to due process of law. However, it has repeatedly shown a willingness to exchange prisoners and has participated in exchanges in the past.

“This is diplomacy through coercion: not simply to resolve international disputes through classic negotiations between countries,” said one Western expert, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity.

– ‘Call it hostage taking’ –

Even after Tehran’s recent high-profile release of British detainees Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori, activists say at least a dozen Westerners, including Americans, British and German citizens, are still being held in Iran.

German citizen Jamshid Sharmahd is on trial in Tehran on charges that could lead to his hanging, as is Swedish national Habib Chaab. Supporters say both men were kidnapped in a third country before being taken to Iran.

Those tensions are also rising at a very sensitive time to resume talks on a 2015 deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program, with Europe warning Tehran of a last chance for a deal.

Mahmoud Emiri-Mogadam, founder of the Iranian human rights NGO, said there was “no doubt” that Westerners were being held hostage and said Europe needed to take a firmer stance and condemned Iran’s hostage-taking.

“Iran has been taking hostages for a long time over the past 40 years. It’s a successful policy, as Western countries have been responding. So Iran continues,” he told AFP.

“For Europe, they don’t see hostage-taking as a big problem. It’s a huge mistake that puts human life at risk,” he said.

Major European powers have generally refrained from publicly accusing Iran of taking hostages for fear of adding further complexity to already thorny nuclear talks.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in rare candor in a January interview that France was pressuring Iran “to ensure that these hostages held in Iran — That’s what we have to call it – set free.”

But engagement between Europe and Iran has continued, with EU foreign policy No. 2 Enrique Mora negotiating in Tehran this week to salvage the nuclear deal.

– “Flat racketeering” –

Amiry-Moghaddam described Djalali’s fate as a “very important test” for Europe, saying “whether they can save him will be decisive”.

Iranian media and officials have warned he faces execution, coinciding with the unprecedented trial of former Iranian official Hamid Nouri in the Swedish capital Stockholm, who was arrested in 2019 for the 1988 massacre of thousands of opposition prisoners.

The trial was conducted under the principle of universal jurisdiction, angering Tehran, which summoned the Swedish ambassador this month. Meanwhile, another Swedish man was arrested in Iran this month.

“The Iranian government is blatantly extorting,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the US-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).

He accused Iran of “collecting dual nationals to use in its human bargaining pool”.

Raphael Chenuil Hazan, director of France-based NGO Common Against the Death Penalty (ECPM), said Europe “cannot remain silent” in the face of the risk of executions for dual nationals.

“The death penalty should not be used as a tool of political bargaining. Iran must understand that such executions will inevitably have huge political costs,” he said.

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