It fell to Babak Namazi to break the news to his mother last week that his brother and elderly father had been sentenced in an Iranian court for “collaboration” with a hostile government, the United States.
He returned home and walked around the block to compose himself. But his mother took one look at his crestfallen face, and knew.
“How many years?” she asked.
It was 10 years, a term that Namazi fears his ailing, 80-year-old father will not survive. His concern led him to break a year’s silence, against his mother’s wishes, to plead in his first interview for Iran to release his brother, Siamak, and their father, Baquer, on humanitarian grounds.
“I was hoping this would not get to the point where I have to speak publicly,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. “I was hoping justice would prevail and the truth would become obvious. Now that my father’s convicted to 10 years, I see this as nothing short of a life sentence.
“Prison is no place for my father to be, no place for Siamak to be,” he added. “All they’ve ever done is try to serve humanity. I call upon the authorities to take into consideration their well-being, and because of my father's age, not expose him to further hardship. We really hope reason will prevail.”
The Namazis are among at least three U.S. citizens with dual nationality who are imprisoned in Iran, along with dual nationals from France and Britain. All have been accused of some euphemism for espionage, interrogated in a Tehran prison notorious for holding political prisoners, and had their cases assigned to the same judge known for his harsh sentences.
The arrests are believed to be part of a power struggle between hard-line elements in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which controls the security apparatus, and the relatively pragmatic administration of President Hassan Rouhani. In meetings with Iranian Americans during his visits to the United Nations, Rouhani has encouraged dual nationals to visit and invest in Iran following a nuclear deal between Tehran and six world powers that lifted economic sanctions on Iran. But the hard-liners who opposed the deal believe such openings expose Iran to the threat of “Western infiltration.”
The Namazi case has had particular resonance in the Iranian diaspora community. Siamak Namazi was well known, not for his politics but for his quests to help victims of earthquakes in Iran and to publicize the problems sanctions created in getting medicine. Baquer Namazi is a former provincial governor in Iran who had also worked for UNICEF in Somalia, Kenya and Egypt.
Siamak Namazi was arrested a year ago when he returned to Iran to visit relatives and attend a funeral. His father was arrested in February when he went to Iran to visit his son in prison.
“Siamak was more active than Jason Rezaian in recruiting spies for America and inserting cultural, military and political spies inside the country,” said Javad Karimi Qudossi, a member of the security and foreign policy committee in Iran’s parliament, according to a report in Mizan, the news agency for the Iranian judiciary. It first reported on the sentences on Tuesday.
Qudossi was referring to the Washington Post reporter who spent a year and a half in prison in Iran before being released along with three other Americans as part of a prisoner swap in January, just as the nuclear deal was being implemented. Their release was supposed to herald a thaw between the two countries, but tensions have only grown as Tehran has complained it has not received the international business it expected.
Family members and the U.S. State Department have disputed Iran’s characterization of the Namazis. Mark Toner, the State Department’s deputy spokesman, said both have been “unjustly detained.”
According to what Babak Namazi has been able to ascertain, both his father and brother have experienced harsh conditions in prison. He said his father has lost about 25 pounds during his eight months behind bars. Suffering from heart ailments that required him to undergo triple bypass surgery, he recently spent three days in a hospital for a “checkup,” his son said.
His brother’s experience is apparently worse. Babak Namazi said Siamak spent a significant amount of time in solitary confinement and has undergone lengthy interrogations. His cell does not have a bed, and he sleeps on the floor.
“His emotional and mental well-being, each time my mom sees him, has deteriorated,” Babak Namazi said.
Namazi said his brother and father were assigned attorneys to represent them in court, but they had only a short period of time to consult with them before their court appearances.
He said he had believed that his father, at least, would be released by now, and described himself as surprised by the convictions and sentences.
“For the past year, we have seen a one-sided attack on my father and brother,” he said. “They are under constant, false accusations. That goes against basic Islamic principles. I hope we have a time not far away when my family can be united and I can see my mother’s smiling face again. Our lives, it’s been like a nuclear bomb going off in the middle of my family.”