Friday, October 14, 2016

Letter from Santa Fe - A Hostage in Tehran

Baquer Namazi
I have been thinking a lot about both freedom and prison lately, and the meaning of both extremes.  Why? - because I, along with nearly a hundred other former UN and UNICEF colleagues, have been working for months now to gain the freedom of a friend and former colleague in prison in Iran.  

Baquer Namazi, now 80 years old, was arrested on February 22, 2016 and has been held since then in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison.  His elder son, Siamak, was arrested last October and is held in the same prison.  

Both father and son were on trial last week in Tehran in a 'closed' court with no public mention of the trial, the charges, or the verdicts. Both are dual nationals, in their cases, Iranians with American citizenship. They are among perhaps 9 other dual nationals held today on spurious charges - 4 Americans and 5 British. All are apparently kept as bargaining chips in Iran's less than diplomatic negotiations with western countries. In short, they are hostages.

Having myself reached the young age of 70,  I shudder to imagine what imprisonment at age 80 means for anyone.    

I cannot speak to the cases of the other hostages, but I can certainly speak to the life and career of Baquer Namazi.  I first met Baquer in Somalia in October 1987 when I was the incoming head of the UNICEF mission there, and he was the outgoing.  He had recently been transferred to Nairobi as head of UNICEF´s office and program for Kenya.  Baquer later moved on to Egypt as UNICEF’s Representative there.  It was in Egypt that Baquer and another UNICEF official were wounded and narrowly escaped death in a rebel attack while they were visiting schools and health centers in an under-served part of the country.  The UNICEF photographer traveling with them died in the attack.

I remember Baquer particularly for his devotion to improving health and education services for nomadic children.  Then as now the government was struggling just to provide a few meager services to urban families.  Yet Somalia is a country of nomads and the condition of nomadic families was and still is far worse than that of their counterparts in the towns.  Few services reach beyond urban limits. Yet, every Somali honors his nomad roots, and so Baquer’s harping on the need to serve the most needy struck a sympathetic cord.  New efforts were made and projects put in place.  Every minister and public official I met recalled Baquer’s quiet determination that government should serve those beyond the city and towns.  

Baquer kept that same determination in his other postings, Nairobi, Cairo, and in New York where he played a key role in the adoption of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child - a bold statement both of rights and obligations eventually subscribed to by almost all countries of the world, including Iran.  

After his retirement from the UN, Baquer went on to work as a consultant for the Population Council and the World Bank.  While working for the latter he authored an important study on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Iran.  

Back home in Iran, Baquer founded and led an NGO devoted to improving the situation of destitute women and children.  He succeeded in convincing the Iranian government to allow Afghan refugee children free schooling, something denied them for many years.  In his global network of contacts and friends, Baquer resurrected  the idea of ‘Children as Zones of Peace’ by which he meant that both the international community and warring parties in conflict zones like Syria, Iraq and South Sudan among other points had an obligation to protect and continue essential health and education services whenever and wherever possible.    

While Baquer did argue for better services for women and children, he was never a vocal critic of his government.  In fact, in the US both he and his imprisoned son, Siamak, were known as advocates of rapprochement, beginning with a relaxation of western sanctions on food and medicines for Iran.  This advocacy made them targets of right-wing Iranian expat groups in the US who opposed the nuclear deal and any rapprochement between Iran and the West.  

Yet, Iranian opposition to the nuclear deal and rapprochement was not just among right wing elements of the Iranian expatriate community, but also in Iran itself.   The Iranian government is deeply split between on the one hand those like President Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Zarif, and on the other the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, the Judiciary, the Intelligence Service and the Revolutionary Guard.   One irony is that the Supreme Leader himself signed off on the nuclear agreement, but ever since has railed against it as submission to the Great Satan.  His faction of the government seems anxious to throw every obstacle possible in front of improved relations with western countries.

Indeed, it was the Revolutionary Guard which arrested both Namazis and the Judiciary which is trying their cases.  The ‘other faction’ made up of those close to the President and the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s diplomats, seem anxious to free the Namazis, or at least have them ‘off their plates’.  Arresting dual nationals, including aid workers, foreign businessmen and journalists, is not a good signal that Iran is open for business again.  

I need to point out here that Iranian law does not recognize ‘dual nationality’. Once an Iranian, always an Iranian under these laws.  Moreover, in the present day ‘dual nationals’ are seen by more conservative Iranians as a ‘third column’ of people who bring western ideas and money back home with an intent to undermine the Revolution and revert the country to the western decadence that existed under the Shah.  According to one Iranian news service, “The conservatives say dual nationality is one of the major canals for foreigners to infiltrate the Islamic Republic.”

Of course, imprisonment of the Namazis and other dual nationals is not due to their holding of dual nationality, but because their second nationality happens to be US, UK, French or until a recent release, Canadian. All are held because they are well known in their second countries where they will be viewed sympathetically.   In fact, there are thousands of other dual national Iranians who ‘go home’ each year to visit relatives, do business, or just want to see the old country.  Many of these hold the same western nationalities as those detained, yet are not arrested.

So why detain these nine or ten?  Precisely because they provide useful bargaining chips in the next phase of Iran’s tortured return to the world stage.  Five earlier hostages were released in January. This release came about in parallel to the larger nuclear deal and the agreement to unfreeze Iranian assets. It must have been clear to conservatives that if Western nations were willing to give up so much, albeit in Iran’s own frozen funds, there was a golden opportunity available in arresting more hostages.  It was also likely an opportunity to embarrass their political opponents at home, those anxious to show the world a new face of Iran.

On the world stage the detention of a few dual nationals by one country may not seem all that important.  After all, we are in the midst of seemingly endless civil wars in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, multiple terrorist groups, growing rejection of refugees, rising nationalism and racism. Against this backdrop, how much does the detention of 10 or even 20 individuals count?  
But of course they do count.  

Related image
A view inside Evin Prison

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