“Why is the world so silent—why are Jews so silent about the plight of Jews being held captive in Iran?” Elana Tehrani, an Iranian-born Jewish woman now living in Los Angeles asked a crowd during a speech at the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills.
Tehrani believes her son is being held captive in Iran, and after 12 years of trying to quietly work through channels, she and 11 other families—who also believe their loved ones are in the same situation—have filed suit against Iran’s former president, Mohammad Khatami, in U.S. Federal Court. They are asking that the U.S. courts hold Khatami responsible for the kidnapping, imprisonment and disappearance of loved ones between 1994 and 1997.
“As a citizen of the United States,” Tehrani said at a rally in New York, “I ask that President Bush and those in Congress help me retrieve my son from the hands of the Islamic Republic!”
Tehrani began speaking out on Sept. 20 before a crowd of more than 30,000 people who were gathered outside the United Nations in New York for a rally organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to protest Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presence at the United Nations. With her were Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, U.S. senators, national Jewish leaders and Israeli officials.
“I was hoping that from this rally ... the world would become more aware of this issue,” she told The Journal in an interview from her West Los Angeles home. “But I don’t know why there was no media coverage of it anywhere, and no one said another word about it since.”
She believes her son, Babak, was kidnapped and imprisoned by Iranian secret police while trying to flee Iran in 1994.
“We have been trying for the last 12 years to get our sons back, but since we have not heard anything about their status after all these years, we were forced to take this action against Mr. Khatami,” Tehrani said. “We want to tell the world that with every day that passes by, we will pursue this issue more and more, until the Islamic Republic of Iran gives us answers”.
A homemaker who also works with her husband in their downtown L.A. shoe store, Tehrani said doctors have told her she has developed glaucoma as a result of excessive crying. She said she has developed a closer bond with her two other sons, who also live in Los Angeles, and an inner strength from praying three times a day.
“I refuse to give up on Babak and give up hope that he’s still alive,” Tehrani said. “We have witnesses that have seen him, and I will not stop looking for my child until he is back in my arms.”
Tehrani said her worst nightmare became a reality on June 8, 1994, when Babak, then 17, and his 20-year-old friend, Shaheen Nikkhoo, attempted to secretly leave Tehran. Because they were the age of military conscription, leaving the country was illegal. The two boys, both Jewish, arrived with their smuggler, Atta Mohammed Rigi, in the southeastern city of Zahedan, near the Pakistani border. Witnesses saw them being arrested there by non-uniformed Iranian secret police, Tehrani said.
Leaders from the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF), a Los Angeles umbrella group of Iranian Jewish organizations, have made quiet diplomatic efforts for the last 12 years to help secure the release of Babak Tehrani and the other imprisoned Jews. Six years ago some activists in the Iranian Jewish community, among them George Haroonian and Frank Nikbakht, became so unhappy with the IAJF’s lack of progress, that they began to pursue a more vocal public approach in attempting to secure the release of the prisoners.
IAJF leaders have long advocated minimizing criticism of Tehran’s regime out of fear of retributions against the approximately 20,000 Jews still living in Iran. Despite internal differences of opinion, the various factions within the local Iranian Jewish community recently banded together in support of victims’ families’ lawsuit.
“Our entire community is united in demanding the immediate release of these individuals and will support any legal and moral course of action that their families may choose to pursue,” the group said in a statement released by the IAJF.
In 2000, with the assistance of various American Jewish groups, the Iranian Jewish community spread news of the case of 13 Iranian Jews from the city of Shiraz who had been imprisoned in 1999 on fabricated charges of spying for Israel. Ultimately the international exposure put pressure on the Iranian regime, prevented the execution of the “Shiraz 13,” and they were eventually released.
Babak Tehrani was last seen in 1996, according to Fereidoon Peyman, an Iranian Jew who was the Tehranis’ neighbor in Iran and who now lives in Los Angeles. In a sworn affidavit given to the Tehrani family, Peyman said that in 1996 he visited Tehran’s infamous Evin prison while attempting to sell land nearby to prison officials. While there, he stated, he saw Babak.
“As I was walking, a jail cell with a window caught my eye, I went forward and I saw several youths who were sitting on the floor,” Peyman stated in his affidavit. “The poor kids, including one whom I knew particularly since he was my daughter’s classmate and whose name was Babak.”
Evin prison is a maximum-security prison allegedly used by the Iranian government to house and torture political dissidents, student protesters, journalists and anyone else believed to pose a threat to the Iranian regime, Nikbakht said.
Experts familiar with Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic laws say such a long imprisonment of Babak Tehrani and the other 11 Jews is highly unusual for an attempted escape from the country and could be politically motivated. According to Chapter 11, Article 34 of Iran’s official Criminal Laws and Regulations, punishment for illegal exit from the country is either a fine or a prison term ranging from two months to a maximum of two years.
Babak’s father, Joseph Tehrani, said he was particularly disappointed with the lack of support and assistance from the Israeli government for the plight of his son and the other imprisoned Iranian Jews.
“Right now, the government of Israel and the prime minister have announced their willingness to release those imprisoned Palestinians who have Israeli blood on their hands in exchange for the release of three of their soldiers. But why isn’t the Israeli government willing to do the same for the 12 Jews held captive in Iran?” Joseph Tehrani said. “Is my son and the others not Jews as well for which Israel is responsible to protect?”
According to a 2004 report prepared by Nikbakht, the Jewish community lives in constant fear for its security amid threats from terrorist Islamic factions in Iran. Since 1979, at least 14 Jews were murdered or assassinated by the regime’s agents, at least two Jews died while in custody and 11 Jews have been officially executed by the regime.
Representatives at the Iranian Mission to the United Nations did not return calls for comment.
This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles: