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IRAN: Grim fates for prisoners with ties to foreigners

October 29, 2009 |  9:03 am

No mercy for those accused of trying to topple the Islamic Republic.

Britain on Thursday protested a four-year jail sentence apparently imposed on one of its senior employees at its embassy in Tehran accused of spying and fomenting violence. 

Hossein Rassam, 44, who served as chief political analyst at the British Embassy in Tehran was sentenced in a closed courtroom earlier this week, according to The Times of London

British authorities were informed of the sentence Tuesday and have summoned the Iranian ambassador while Britain’s ambassador to Iran has filed a complaint with Iranian authorities. The outcome of the trial has yet to be officially announced. 

In other developments, an Iranian human rights group is claiming that judiciary officials in Iran refuse to let a lawyer file an appeal on behalf of Kian Tajbakhsh, an Iranian American scholar sentenced to 15 years in jail for allegedly stirring up trouble during recent protests. 

And a vacation video (above) said to “prove the innocence” of three American hikers detained in Iran since the summer has been released online. 

Not all the news is grim. Iranian authorities recently released Maziar Bahari, a Newsweek reporter and Iranian Canadian who was arrested in the post-election unrest.


The reports of Rassam’s sentence and the refusal of Tajbakhsh’s appeal surfaced as Britain, the U.S. and other major powers considered Iran’s reply to a proposed deal by the United Nations' atomic watchdog intended to ease international tension over its controversial nuclear program.

The Rassam case has angered the Brits. Foreign secretary David Miliband referred to the court decision in a statement as “deeply concerning” and “wholly unjustified."

Rassam’s sentence, said Miliband, illustrated "further harassment of embassy staff for going about their normal and legitimate duties."

Rassam was arrested June 27 along with eight other local employees of the British Embassy amid the public unrest and protests that erupted after Iran’s disputed June 12 presidential election. At that time, the group was supposedly accused of participating in the riots that began after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed victory in the election. 

The other eight were released after some time but Rassam was put on trial along with an employee at the French Embassy and French researcher Clothilde Reiss.

The three were tried in a mass trial of more than 100 people rounded up during the post-election fallout, accused of seeking to bring down the government. Opposition leaders slammed the proceedings as “show trials.”

Rassam is currently out on bail after his release from Teheran’s Evin prison in August. It was not known whether he will remain free pending his appeal or will have to return to prison immediately.

Non-Iranian reporters have not been allowed to attend any of Rassam’s court hearings but the state news agency said Rassam had told the court that 300,000 British pounds, or about $500,000, had been budgeted to set up contacts with political groups prior to the Iranian presidential election, including the main reformist opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Ties between Britain and Iran have grown increasingly tense since the disputed vote and subsequent fallout. 

Miliband urged Iranian authorities in his statement to overturn Rassam’s sentence, which he said constituted an “attack against the entire diplomatic community in Iran." 

He warned of gloomy consequences for Iran from countries other than Britain should the sentence not be overruled. 

Rassam, a father of one, has worked at the embassy since 2004. 

Tajbakhsh, an urban planner who holds a doctorate from Columbia University, was arrested and taken into custody in the wake of the post-election protests. He was once a consultant for the American non-profit organization, The Open Society Institute, which his indictment described as a “CIA satellite institution." 

Among other charges, Tajbakhsh was found guilty of “acting against national security,” “spying and connections with foreign elements against the sacred system of the Islamic Republic” and “causing lack of public trust toward the official national organs and the ruling system by instigating rioting, mayhem, fear and terror within the society," according to a statement issued by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.  

According to Iranian law Tajbakhsh has 20 days to appeal, but the rights group claims that Iranian judiciary officials have rejected multiple attempts by Tajbakhsh’s lawyer to file an appeal in what the group calls a “blatantly illegal act." 

When Tajbakhsh’s lawyer protested to judiciary officials, he was said to have been told: "It's our law, so we can do what we want with it.” 

The scholar has spent the months since his July arrest in Tehran’s Evin prison. He was previously kept in solitary confinement but was recently transferred to a villa on the prison compound, where he lived with a number of other high-profile detainees including a former vice president, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, according to the New York Times.

Tajbakhsh is now said to be back in solitary confinement. 

Iran-hikers Supporters of the three hikers caught by Iranian authorities along the Iraqi border have gone all out to try to secure their release. Two video clips, shot by a fourth hiker who was not arrested, depict the hikers singing and showing off some dance moves in Iraqi Kurdistan before they were arrested by Iranian authorities for allegedly trying to cross the border illegally.

"If ever there was even the slightest doubt that we were in Iraqi Kurdistan to relax and have fun, this should surely remove it," Shon Meckfessel, the fourth hiker who was not with the group at their arrest, told Agence France Presse. 

Relatives of the hikers said they were walking in the border area between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan while on holiday July 31. 

Iran, however, says it harbors suspicions about the activities and intentions of the Americans in the area.

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut 

Photos, from top: British Embassy employee Hossein Rassam was sentenced to four years in jail for spying and inciting unrest; three American hikers dancing before being detained by Iranian authorities. Credits, from top: Times of London; YouTube.