PARIS (AFP) – A year after dissident Ruhollah Zam was executed in Iran after he was apparently lured from France, his hanging strikes fear Iranian opposition exiles beyond the Islamic Republic.
Zam, the founder of a popular Telegram channel scorned by Iranian authorities for its use during the November 2019 protests, was executed on December 12 last year just weeks after leaving France, where he had status refugee, on a mysterious trip to Iraq.
Colleagues say he was kidnapped in Iraq by Iranian forces, taken to the border, paraded on television, forced to take part in televised “confessions”, convicted and then hanged with astonishing speed.
Activists argue that his kidnapping and assassination is part of a long history of retaliation by Iran against opponents living outside its borders, dating back to the first months after the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Zam’s friends remain perplexed as to how a man described as passionate about his job and devoted to his daughter chose to take the risky trip to Iraq, a country with a strong Iranian presence, and want answers from France on what happened.
Sepideh Pooraghaiee, an Iranian journalist living in exile in France and friend of Zam, told AFP that “a lot of things are not clear. We do not know anything.
“We demand justice for a journalist who was murdered and are working to keep his memory intact. “
The association of friends and activists United For Zam created to keep his memory alive said the French government “needed to clear up any ambiguity” about how Zam was kidnapped in Iraq.
Echoing activists’ frustration that human rights are not part of talks over Iran nuclear crisis, they called on France “to condition negotiations with the Islamic Republic on an end to the killings and brutal repression political dissidents ”.
“Seriously increasing risk”
Activists accuse Iran of killing and kidnapping hundreds of opponents in the four decades since the overthrow of the shah’s royalist government.
Among the most notorious is the stabbing death of Shah Shapour Bakhtiar’s last prime minister and his secretary outside Paris in August 1991.
An Iranian, Ali Vakili Rad, was convicted of the murder, but in 2010 was paroled by France and returned to Iran where he was greeted as a hero.
The September 1992 assassination of four Iranian Kurdish militants at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin resulted in a German arrest warrant against the Iranian intelligence minister and a crisis in relations between Iran and the West.
“The kidnapping and subsequent murder of Ruhollah Zam is part of a pattern of intimidation, extrajudicial killings and kidnappings of dissidents by agents of the Islamic Republic of Iran that has lasted for decades,” said Roya Boroumand, Executive Director of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center based in the United States.
The Center has counted more than 540 Iranians whose successful assassination or kidnappings have been attributed to Iran, peaking in the 1990s with more than 397 killed, including 329 in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Boroumand said there had been a “slowdown” in these activities after the international reaction following the Mykonos affair.
But a growing number of cases “indicate a seriously growing risk” for Iranian dissidents abroad.
She linked this to the growing number of overseas-based web channels that have made an impact in Iran – like Zam’s Amadnews – especially during events such as the 2019 protests.
“Not a normal life”
Zam is far from the only international kidnapping case blamed on Iran in recent times.
In July 2020, German-Iranian national Jamshid Sharmahd disappeared in Dubai on his way to India. His family say he was kidnapped, taken to Iran via Oman and then tried for an explosion in 2008, charges his family strongly rejects.
“We don’t know where he is exactly. We do not know if he is kept in humane conditions, ”his family said in a statement, adding that they were“ shocked ”when he paraded on Iranian television blindfolded and swollen.
In July this year, US prosecutors indicted four Iranians in absentia with a plot to kidnap dissident Masih Alinejad of New York on a speedboat and take her to Tehran’s ally, Venezuela.
Alinejad, who has campaigned heavily against the mandatory hijab in Iran, is now part of a bipartisan US Senate effort to introduce legislation that would sanction those who instigate such attempts.
Now living in a safe house after the plot was foiled, Alinejad said, “Even here in America, I don’t have a normal life. I am not a criminal. My crime is just to give a voice to the voiceless protesters in Iran.