By Karmel Melamed
In a rare display of unity, a variety of groups within the local Persian Jewish community have joined to voice support for a lawsuit filed against former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami on Sept. 9 by seven Persian Jewish families in Los Angeles and Israel. The suit holds Khatami responsible for the arrests and disappearance of their loved ones more than 10 years ago.
Filed in New York District Court under special U.S. laws that permit non-U.S. citizens to sue their oppressors in U.S. courts, the suit alleges that Khatami authorized the arrest and indefinite imprisonment of Persian Jews during his administration. It states that between 1994 and 1997, 12 Persian Jews were arrested by the Iranian secret police while attempting to flee from southwestern Iran into Pakistan. They have not been heard from since.
The most surprising show of public support for the victims’ families suit came from the L.A.-based Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF), an umbrella organization for more than a dozen local Persian Jewish groups. For the past 12 years, IAJF representatives have pursued quiet diplomacy with various governments and human rights groups to help free the 12 missing Iranian Jews, avoiding creating a public campaign.
A statement released by the IAJF voiced support for the suit: “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.”
Activists in the Persian Jewish community long have been at odds with the IAJF and other local Persian Jewish leaders who have advocated minimizing criticism of Teheran’s regime out of fear of retributions against the roughly 20,000 Jews still living in Iran.
Some local Persian Jewish leaders applauded the suit as a step to dispel the image of Khatami in the West as a moderate leader.
Khatami “is a representative of an evil regime,” said Dariush Fakheri, co-founder of the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana. “During his tenure, more newspapers were forced to shut down, and more opposition leaders were assassinated abroad than before.”
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, an attorney for the victims’ families in Israel, said the suit targets Khatami personally, and they expect to be able to collect on any judgment the court might renders in their favor because of Terror Risk Insurance Act from 2002 that permits U.S. terror victims to be paid with frozen assets of terror sponsoring states.
“As such he’ll probably default the case and try to ignore it,” Darshan-Leitner said. “But slowly he’ll begin to understand that these types of cases have a very long shelf life, and they cannot be ignored.”
Darshan-Leitner said she is also involved in a case pending in Chicago against the Iranian government that for the first time has forced the regime to hire its own American attorneys and litigate its rights in a U.S. court. Likewise in December 2005, she was involved in an effort to attach Italian bank accounts with more than $600 million belonging to the National Oil Company of Iran.
“The Islamic Republic was trying to ignore the legal proceedings in Chicago and in Rome. Now they aren’t laughing so loud,” Darhsan-Leitner said. “Khatami might be able to hide in Iran and the Third World, but Mr. Moderate Reformer is going to have a hard time traveling and owning assets in civilized western nations that recognize U.S. court judgments.”
Attorneys for the victim’s families said they waited until Khatami was physically in the United States to file the suit, so they could serve him with the necessary documents during his recent speaking tour. According to federal laws, Khatami has 20 days to file a response.
Local Iranian Jews say it’s time finally to speak out.
“Sometimes you have to use diplomacy,” said Frank Nikbakht, a Los Angeles activist who has worked on the case of the missing 12 for the last six years. “But for this case, because the Iranian government has been lying to the prisoners’ families for so many years and promising to release them, we believe the time has long passed for silent diplomacy, and we have to use all sorts of public pressure on the Iranian government.”
In 2000, with the assistance of various American Jewish groups, the local Iranian Jewish community was able to publicize the case of 13 Iranian Jews from the city of Shiraz who were imprisoned in 1999 on fabricated charges of spying for Israel. Ultimately the international exposure put pressure on the Iranian regime, and the “Shiraz 13” were eventually released.
Nikbakht said he and other activists attempted to bring the case of the other 12 missing Iranian Jews to public light in 2000, but were blocked from doing so by the American Jewish leadership.
“We wanted to bring out this case of these 12 prisoners, along with the case of the Shiraz prisoners, but many American Jewish organizations strongly disapproved of this approach, so we couldn’t go ahead with it,” Nikbakht said. “We thought that once we had the attention of the world we should have linked these two issues and solved them together.”
According to a 2004 report prepared by Nikbakht, the Jewish community in Iran lives in constant fear for its security amid threats from terrorist Islamic factions. Since 1979, at least 14 Jews have been 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. In 1999, Feizollah Mekhoubad, a 78-year-old cantor of the popular Yousefabad synagogue in Tehran, was the last Jew to be officially executed by the regime, according to the report.
Representatives at the Iranian Mission to the United Nations did not return calls for comment.
Karmel Melamed is an internationally published freelance journalist based in Southern California.
This article was originally published in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles: