Saberi's Release Highlights Prisoners Left Behind

As activists celebrate the release of U.S. journalist Roxana Saberi from Iran's notorious Evin prison, human rights groups are speaking out about others still held there. Host Scott Simon speaks to Hadi Ghaemi of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran about some Evin inmates, including two doctors arrested for spreading information about HIV and AIDS.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Roxana Saberi is free after being sentenced to eight years in prison on a charge of espionage. Ms. Saberi spent more than three months in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison before an appeals court released her. Many others remain in prisons in Iran, there for what human rights activists say are equally unjust reasons.

Unidentified People: Treating AIDS is not a crime, treating AIDS is not a crime, treating AIDS is not a crime.

SIMON: This week, about a dozen protesters gathered at the United Nations to bring attention to prisoners who remain in Evin, including two doctors, the Alawi(ph) Brothers. One of the protestors, Dr. Jay Dobkin of Columbia University…

Dr. JAY DOBKIN (Columbia University): Two AIDS doctors basically moldering in jail in Iran who should be with patients and dealing with the important health problems that they've dedicated their lives and careers to.

SIMON: Going to spend some time today learning about the Alawi brothers and a couple of other high-profile prisoners at this prison. We're trying to understand the state of political dissidents in Iran. We turn to Hadi Ghaemi. He is the coordinator for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. He joins us from our studios in New York. Mr. Ghaemi, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. HADI GHAEMI (International Campaign for Human Rights): Good to be with you.

SIMON: We began by noting, of course, that Roxana Saberi has been freed. But Mr. Ghaemi, from your point of view, what remains undone?

Mr. GHAEMI: What remains undone is the concerted attention being paid to the cases of hundreds of other political prisoners in Iran who did not have the luxury of Roxana Saberi's recognition and international standing and attention she got. Nonetheless, Iran is a country of much focus and is in the news, and it would be very unfair to the Iranian people if we do not pay attention and bring the same level of scrutiny to the cases of other political prisoners as Roxana received.

SIMON: The Alawi brothers are doctors.

Mr. GHAEMI: Yes.

SIMON: And what are the charges against them? Do we know?

Mr. GHAEMI: Yes, we do know. And the charges are exactly what was brought against Roxana Saberi, the very same indictment that led to her eight-year imprisonment in the lower court. It is cooperation with an enemy government with intent to harm the Islamic Republic of Iran.

SIMON: And what's their status right now?

Mr. GHAEMI: They are in jail. They have received three and six-year sentences. The first appeals court has confirmed those sentences, and their lawyer has filed for the one very last appeal that they can have at the Supreme Court.

SIMON: Let me ask you about this, if I can, Mr. Ghaemi. This week one of Roxana Saberi's lawyers, he said she had in her possession a copy of a confidential Iranian government document about U.S. military action in Iraq. Does Iran have a real national security interest that has to be respected?

Mr. GHAEMI: Yes, Iran and all other countries have legitimate national security concerns with regard to maintaining their security. The issue here is that an overwhelming number of cases we see that the concept in Iran has turned on its head and peaceful activists, labor organizers and students, journalists, everyone is accused of acting against national security.

Let me just give you one example. Women who are calling for gender equality are being prosecuted for endangering national security. So it is abuse of the system that makes that whole argument questionable in Iran.

SIMON: Could you tell us about another case that involves Iran's labor movement?

Mr. GHAEMI: Yes. I would like to focus on a labor leader named Mansour Orfandu(ph). He's the bus driver in Tehran who organized an independent union of bus drivers. And because there are many economic hardships for low-earning income laborers in Iran, they simply had economic demands that they wanted to collectively bargain. And so like the government and their employer was not responding.

He has been in jail now for about three years. He received a five-year sentence and the charge against him was acting against national security.

SIMON: Can you also tell us about the case of a woman named Silva Hartoonian(ph).

Mr. GHAEMI: Yes. She's an Iranian citizen who is also Armenian. She's a poet and she was just an administrator for an American NGO (unintelligible) that was doing research on prenatal care in Iran. Unfortunately, she got caught in the web of the intelligence ministry wanting to prosecute anyone who was working with American institutions.

And we do know that originally they detained her, took her a hotel room, interrogated her for hours, took her to Evin Prison, kept her in solitary confinement, and by tricking her forced her to admit that her activities were a cover for intelligence activity. She was promised that if she makes that confession they would reduce the pressure on her. And as such, she's been prosecuted as cooperating with an enemy government, being the United States, and is serving a three-year sentence.

SIMON: Hadi Ghaemi, who is coordinator for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, thanks so much.

Mr. GHAEMI: Thank you, Scott.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: To find out more about other political prisoners in Iran who haven't had a public trial, you can go to our blog for an audio slideshow. There you'll hear an interview we did with a prominent human rights lawyer in Tehran.

How free are you to be a defense attorney or to talk to us, for that matter?

Ms. ABDOLFATTAH SOLTANI (Human Rights Lawyer) (Through translator): I've been to jail several times and they know that I have no fear of going to jail, and at any moment I am prepared that they might come and take me. As you may know, three and a half years ago I spent 219 days in solitary confinement. So my case is different, say, than that of a student. If they arrest me, there will be international pressure and other calls for my release.

SIMON: That's Abdolfattah Soltani, human rights lawyer in Iran. Go to npr.org/soapbox to hear the interview.

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