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Jewish Journal

Many doubt report on Iranian-Jewish captives

by Karmel Melamed

April 2, 2014 | 1:43 pm

Elana Tehrani holds a photo of her son, kidnapped Iranian Jew, Babak Tehrani. Photo by Karmel Melamed

Elana Tehrani holds a photo of her son, kidnapped Iranian Jew, Babak Tehrani. Photo by Karmel Melamed

Los Angeles-area Iranian-Jewish activists are expressing doubt about a recent report from the Israeli intelligence agency that a group of Jews fleeing Iran during the 1990s were, in fact, kidnapped and then murdered.

On March 20, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office issued a statement saying the Mossad had investigated and “received from a reliable source, privy to the details, information that these Jews were captured and murdered while escaping [Iran].” The statement did not indicate who carried out the killings.

A handful of Iranian Jews in Los Angeles are questioning the details of reports from the Israeli media.

“The Israeli media reports contained a number of inaccuracies, and our community is in the process of gathering more facts about the reports,” said Sam Kermanian, senior adviser to the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles, who has been following the case of the missing Iranian Jews for the past 20 years. “We will not be making any further comments until such clarifications are obtained,” Kermanian said.

According to a 2001 report issued by the now-defunct Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations (CIAJO), eight Jews ranging in age from 15 to 36 were arrested by Iranian authorities between June and December 1994 while attempting to illegally flee from Iran into Pakistan. The CIAJO report also states that, in February 1997, Iranian authorities arrested four more Jews in their late 40s and 50s, also for attempting to illegally flee from Iran to Pakistan.

Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian-Jewish activist who heads the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, also has been following the case for the last 20 years. He believes the Israeli news reports contain errors, including a failure to mention Jews kidnapped in 1997 by Iran’s secret police.

“To date, neither our community in Los Angeles, nor the families of the missing Jews who reside in the United States, have received any formal notification from the Israeli government,” Nikbakht said. “At the same time, to the best of our knowledge, the narratives in the Israeli papers and media contain certain factual mistakes.”

State-run news media outlets in Iran also have remained silent on the Israeli reports, Nikbakht said.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran, in the meantime, has neither confirmed nor denied the claims made by the Israeli press, relating to several different events having taken place during three years, surprisingly ending in virtually identical tragedies or supposed ‘mistakes’ — which apparently only happened to groups of Iranian Jews trying to leave their country for the United States, Israel and other free countries,” Nikbakht said.

For the past three decades, local Iranian Jews have been heavily involved in various actions regarding the safety of the remaining Jews in Iran. 

In 2000, with the assistance of various American-Jewish groups, the L.A. Iranian-Jewish community was able to publicize the case of 13 Iranian Jews from the city of Shiraz who had been jailed in 1999 on fabricated charges of spying for Israel and were facing the death penalty. Ultimately, the intense international exposure put pressure on the Iranian regime, and the “Shiraz 13” were eventually released.
According to a recent report from the United Nations Refugee Agency, hundreds of thousands of Iranian Muslims, Bahais, Armenians and Zoroastrians, as well as Jews, have fled Iran via Pakistan or Turkey, many during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and afterward to avoid military conscription required by the Iranian regime’s laws.

There are no enhanced penalties specifically targeting Jews fleeing Iran, but the amended 1991 Islamic Punishment Act of Iran states that the official penalty for leaving the country through unmarked border crossings is simply a monetary fine amounting to a few dollars and a maximum of three months in jail. 

Iraj H., an Iranian-Jewish businessman who lives in Los Angeles but declined to give his real name for fear his family members in Iran could be harmed, said that during the 1980s and ’90s, Iranian authorities arrested a small number of refugees fleeing Iran. Most were released soon after their arrest and returned to their homes, although, he said, sometimes the authorities robbed the escapees of their valuables.

Perhaps the most publicized story concerning the kidnapped Iranian Jews has come from Elana Tehrani, mother of Babak Tehrani, one of the missing Jews. She now lives in Los Angeles and spoke to the Journal in 2007 in an exclusive interview. 

Tehrani said that on June 8, 1994, Babak, then 17, and his friend Shaheen Nikkhoo, then 20, secretly left Tehran to escape the country. Leaving Iran was illegal and risky for the pair, both of whom were at the age of military conscription. The two Jewish youths had planned to cross into Pakistan, then head to Austria, and finally to the United States. They and their smuggler, Atta Mohammed Rigi, arrived in the southeastern city of Zahedan, near Iran’s southeastern border with Pakistan. Witnesses said they saw the two Jews being arrested by non-uniformed secret police, Tehrani said.

“I was in Austria at that time, waiting for Babak to call me. Instead, the smugglers’ relatives called and said that Babak, Shaheen and the smugglers had been arrested and they would help get them released,” Tehrani told the Journal in 2007. “When days turned to weeks and we heard nothing about the boys, we were very upset and turned to the Iranian-Jewish community here in L.A. for help.”

Nikbakht said the Tehranis and other Los Angeles-based family members of the missing Iranian Jews will not speak to the press and are unconvinced by the recent reports from Israel.

“At this time, lacking sufficient facts, those family members in the United States who have been informed about the reports have refused to mourn or to hold any memorial events,” Nikbakht said. “Stuck in their continuing and cruel plight imposed upon them by the regime of Iran, they are determined to continue their lonely search for their missing loved ones.”

The majority of L.A.’s Iranian-Jewish leadership will not comment out of caution about making any statements related to the Iranian regime. They fear that any criticism might spur the regime to seek retribution on the fewer than 10,000 Jews still living in Iran.

One exception is Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, an Israeli attorney for the victims’ families living in Israel. In 2006, Darshan-Leitner’s nonprofit legal center, Shurat HaDin, which is based in Israel, filed suit in a United States Federal Court in New York against former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami on behalf of the missing Jews’ families. The lawsuit, which is still ongoing, alleges that Khatami was personally aware of and involved with the incidents surrounding the kidnappings.

Representatives at the Iranian Mission to the United Nations did not return calls for comment.

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