Fear for Life of Imprisoned Iranian Writer

Sunday, September 14, 1997

Imprisoned Iranian writer may be killed by government for promoting freedom of expression
Refusing to give up hope, his wife embarks on a whirl-wind press tour to try and compel the international community to help

Update Notice
The material below was prepared in August 1997 and provides an extensive background to the Sarkoohi case. On 18 September 1997, new information was released on the fate of Sarkoohi. He is alive and has been sentenced to one year's imprisonment. Iranian authorities state the jail term is for slandering the Islamic Republic of Iran by writing the open letter described below. Sarkoohi may also face other charges. Click here to access alerts distributed by the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX) which offer information on the latest developments.

When Farideh Zebarjad Sarkoohi, the wife of imprisoned Iranian writer Faraj Sarkoohi, spoke at a Toronto press conference in late July, the mix of courage and desperation in her pleas added just one more chapter to an already tragic and bewildering story.

Fearing that her husband may be killed at any time, Zebarjad embarked on an eleventh-hour press tour to try and compel western governments to get more involved. "If Faraj is still alive it is only due to these international pressures," she said at the press conference, sponsored by PEN Canada and the Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists (CCPJ).

That Zebarjad is not even sure if her husband is alive only underscores the complexity and uncertainty of this story.

It likely begins with a 1994 open Declaration by 134 Iranian Writers calling for an end to literary censorship in Iran. Faraj Sarkoohi, who was then editor-in-chief of the monthly literary magazine Adineh, was a key organizer and signatory of the declaration. According to renowned Iranian writer Reza Baraheni, who was another key organizer of the Declaration and is now living in exile in Toronto, the Iranian authorities retaliated swiftly. "We were bombarded by the government press as spies... they called us 'cafe-dwelling guerrillas'... and broadcasted a prime-time television show called "The Identity" where all of [the Declaration's organizers] were called traitors," said Baraheni.

When this campaign failed to silence Sarkoohi, Baraheni and other key organizers, the Iranian regime intensified its repression. Three other signatories soon turned up dead under mysterious circumstances. There was an assassination attempt against Sarkoohi and twenty other journalists in August 1996. After narrowly escaping several abductors, Baraheni fled the country. And then, last November, Sarkoohi disappeared.

The Iranian government stated he had traveled to Germany. In fact, Sarkoohi had gone to the Tehran airport to catch a flight to Hamburg directly before his disappearance and his name appeared to be on the airline's departure list. German officials, however, denied he ever arrived. Moreover, reliable sources reported that an Iranian official had been spotted "accompanying" Sarkoohi at the airport. Zebarjad and international observers saw the Iranian government's story as a red herring, accusing it of abducting Sarkoohi.

The mystery deepened when Sarkoohi suddenly re-appeared at the Tehran airport in December: in a press conference attended by international media, Sarkoohi confirmed the government's explanation of his disappearance, stating that he had in fact been in Germany. He also said he met with Iranian officials earlier in Cologne earlier in December and they had assured him he could return to Iran without fear of arrest.

The government's story was also bolstered by the fact that Sarkoohi appeared to enjoy freedom of movement in Iran for a few weeks after the press conference and that he repeated the official version of his disappearance in private discussions.

And then - without apparent reason - Sarkoohi was arrested in January 1997. He has not been seen since.

However, during the brief respite between the press conference and this arrest, Sarkoohi secretly penned a letter and had it successfully smuggled out of the country. This letter, released by Sarkoohi's brother in Sweden shortly after the January arrest, ended the mystery surrounding his disappearance. Sarkoohi did not leave the Tehran airport in a plane bound for Germany; instead, he was blindfolded by Iranian authorities and taken to prison.

"[I]t was there," Sarkoohi wrote in his letter, "that the main part of the plan began to unfold. I was shown various documents, and I was able to see that my picture had been torn out of my passport and replaced by a photo of another person... I saw that my passport contained an entry stamp from Hamburg airport.

"From the very first day they told me: 'You have been reported missing. It has been made known that you have left the country.... You will be kept here in isolation and when the interrogations, the interviews and our inquiries are over, we are going to kill you and bury your body in secret....'

"First they tormented me until I broke down, then under extreme pressure I was forced to learn lots of prepared text by heart...."

It is now clear that Sarkoohi's press conference statements were made under duress, as were all the other ones, including video-taped confessions released later which showed him confessing to espionage and adultery - crimes punishable by death in Iran.

Sarkoohi's letter also makes it fairly clear that he fell victim to a complicated two-part scheme by the Iranian Ministry of Information. First, Iranian authorities attempted to make it appear as if Sarkoohi had disappeared in Germany in order to kill him in Iran without drawing international attention. Second, Iranian authorities tried to set Sarkoohi up as a German spy in order to undermine accusations from Bonn that the Iranian government was implicated in terrorist activities in Germany.

Sarkoohi's letter fully exposed this scheme, generating renewed international condemnation of Iran and an outpouring of concern for Sarkoohi's welfare. Last February, the Iranian government finally admitted that Sarkoohi had not disappeared, but had been imprisoned by them.

"The portions of Mr. Sarkoohi's letter which detail the extraordinary lengths taken by Iranian authorities to try and dupe the international community into believing that he had left for Germany unequivocally demonstrate that Iran is concerned with international opinion," states Wayne Sharpe, Executive Director of the CCPJ, in a July 28 open letter to Lloyd Axworthy, Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs. "The Iranian government must see that Canada places a high value on Mr. Sarkoohi's life and on freedom of expression, and they must be requested in the strongest terms possible to not kill him, but immediately and unconditionally release him."

Since Sarkoohi's re-arrest and the publication of his letter in January, he has been kept virtually incommunicado. In early July rumors circulated around Tehran that he had been tried and sentenced to death. "He may have been given a trial and if so it would almost certainly have run afoul of international standards," said Sharpe.

This case has raised a loud international outcry. Even the United Nations has tried to help: in July, four different UN Special Rapporteurs made an urgent appeal on behalf of Sarkoohi to Iran's delegation in Geneva and to the Iranian representative to the UN. According to Reza Baraheni, Sarkoohi would not be alive today if the international community had not advocated on his behalf. "Faraj is an example of the Iranian authorities bending under pressure," said Baraheni. "If this international pressure had not taken place, he would have been killed. If left to themselves, the Iranian government would simply get rid of the independent voices."

Nevertheless, as with other appeals on behalf of victims of human rights violations, the Iranian government has responded to appeals for Sarkoohi's release with a deafening silence, even refusing to tell Sarkoohi's wife and children if he is still alive.

The imprisonment of Faraj Sarkoohi symbolizes the wrongs being suffered by writers and other people all over the world, said Zebarjad, "I'm not speaking as the wife of Faraj but as a human being that has a value system in her life."

(Photo courtesy of Farideh Zebarjad Sarkoohi)

What can I do to help?

* Contact your government or Iranian authorities and ask them to take immediate action to ensure Sarkoohi is not killed but released or given a fair and open trial

Where can I get more information?

* Access an archive of IFEX alerts on the case

* Check out background material on Sarkoohi provided by PEN America

* Read a translation of Sarkoohi's open letter in which he describes the events surrounding his disappearance, imprisonment and torture.

* Read a letter written on behalf of Sarkoohi on June 20, 1997, by Arthur Miller and Edward Said. (Courtesy of PEN America )