This column has been updated.
It’s been a horrifying experience, but I can’t say that it’s been entirely unexpected. The regime has tried many forms of intimidation to silence me over the years. When I launched a campaign against the regime’s harsh dress code for women, including mandatory wearing of the hijab, the main TV news channel responded with a report falsely claiming I had been raped in the streets of London because I hadn’t been wearing a veil.
Since I fled the country in 2009, I have continued to criticize the Islamic Republic’s human rights abuses and undemocratic ways. Since 2014, I’ve lived in New York, where I write articles, manage several social media sites and host a weekly satirical TV show on Voice of America’s Persian service. Through these channels I provide a platform for the voiceless people in Iran who on a daily basis share their videos with me.
The regime’s cruel treatment of women remains one of its biggest weaknesses, and my focus on related injustices explains why it remains so persistent in targeting me. Yet this latest campaign represents an ominous escalation.
Just one day before the current campaign against me began, the authorities in Tehran announced that they had abducted Jamshid Sharmahd, a dissident who had been living in exile in California. Iranian TV and newspaper front pages displayed images of Sharmahd wearing a blindfold. International media reported that he had been kidnapped as he was passing through Dubai on a trip to India.
“Our father was abducted, he was taken against his will,” Shayan Sharmahd told me. “The family’s been in shock since we first heard the news, and our only recourse is for the West to demand his release.”
His arrest was the catalyst that brought the avalanche of threats against me. I have lost count of the hundreds of postings — from members of parliament, newspapers and government-associated websites — who have openly fantasized about my abduction.
They are not empty threats. Last October, Paris-based Ruhollah Zam, the founder of an opposition channel on the social media app Telegram, was lured to Iraq and then disappeared to Tehran, where after a brief show trial he was sentenced to death.
Let’s be honest: hostage-taking is in the DNA of the Islamic Republic. In the chaotic post-revolutionary days, the clerics strengthened their hold on power by taking U.S. diplomats hostage in 1979, keeping them captive for over a year. Nothing in the mentality of those in power in Tehran has changed. Even today, the Islamic Republic regards hostage-taking as part of its foreign policy tool kit.
The regime is shameless in how it uses hostages as pawns. Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian spent more than a year as a hostage, charged with espionage, until he was freed. But there are dozens more, such as Iranian-American Siamak Namazi, the Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert, the Iranian-Swedish researcher Ahmad Reza Jalali and the Iranian-British Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who are still languishing in jail.
These are not just names on a list. They are human beings with sons, daughters, mothers and fathers who expectantly await their release. I’m in touch with some of their families and have listened to their stories of loss and pain.
Of course, the Islamic Republic also has a history of killing dissidents at home and abroad. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s agents murdered the Shah’s last prime minister, 77-year-old Shapour Bakhtiar, at his home in a Paris suburb in 1991. Kurdish leader Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou was assassinated in Vienna, TV personality Ferydoun Farrokhzad in Bonn, Germany.
The Islamic Republic’s defenders like to claim these murders were acts of a bygone era. Don’t believe them. Iranian dissident Masoud Molavi was shot dead on an Istanbul street last November. In 2018, Denmark accused the Islamic Republic of plotting to assassinate opposition activists on its soil. The Dutch and the French governments have also accused Tehran of ordering killings of dissidents.
The calls for my kidnapping come after a series of attacks against my family.
The security forces in 2018 made my sister go on state TV to publicly disown me. Last year, my brother Alireza Alinejad, a father of two small children, was arrested and dragged away to the notorious Evin prison. After 10 months in detention, including physical and psychological torture, he was secretly tried, without the presence of his lawyer, and given an eight-year prison sentence.
This thuggish behavior will continue until the international community recognizes that the Islamic Republic is not a normal regime. Kidnapping and hostage-taking are not normal behavior for a state. The Islamic Republic will see the West’s silence as tantamount to a seal of approval.
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