Iranian brothers sentenced in alleged plot
Two well-known physicians accused of taking part in a plot to overthrow the Islamic Republic were given stiff prison sentences Wednesday, their lawyer said.
Arash Alaei was sentenced to six years in jail and his younger brother Kamiar got three years, attorney Massoud Shafaei told The Times, adding that he would appeal the verdict within the 20-day limit.
Also Wednesday, human rights activists identified a third defendant in the case: Sylvia Hartounian, 33, a reproductive medicine specialist.
Iranian authorities allege that the Alaei brothers, both pioneers in the field of HIV/AIDS treatment in Iran, Hartounian and a fourth, unnamed suspect were part of what they say was a $32-million U.S.-funded “intelligence war” aimed at stirring civil unrest and revolution in Iran. The suspects’ lawyer, relatives and other supporters say the charge is blatantly false.
Iranian authorities have not announced the verdict against the brothers, though an unnamed official leaked word on the case’s outcome this week.
“It’s shocking to the worldwide scientific and medical communities that they were ever arrested,” said Jonathan Hutson, a spokesman for the Cambridge, Mass.-based Physicians for Human Rights. “They are not known to be politically active. . . . If they were engaged in any kind of warfare, it was only to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS.”
The charge against the doctors appears to stem from a 2006 medical conference in Washington funded by the U.S. State Department that included specialized topics such as “Pediatric Oncology and Child Health” and “Infectious Diseases, Including HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis.”
Rights activists say the Iranian government was fully aware of the conference and that its small diplomatic outpost in Washington even hosted a dinner for the conference’s Iranian health professionals.
“It was provided with full details of the participation of Iranian physicians and researchers and the entire program was transparent,” said a statement issued by the International Campaign for Human Rights.
The brothers and Hartounian, an Iranian Armenian national, were arrested in Tehran in July. Hutson, citing sources close to the trial, said the brothers were confined to Section 209, the infamous ward for national security detainees at Tehran’s Evin prison, and suggested that “the brothers were coerced during this period of intensive interrogation.”
Shafaei, the lawyer, said the brothers had regular visits by their mother.
Hartounian also was subject to intense interrogation, rights activists say. The International Campaign for Human Rights cites a former prisoner who says that Hartounian suffers from severe claustrophobia. After being held in solitary confinement for 10 days, she reportedly agreed to appear before a video camera and read a statement “confessing” that Arash Alaei led a secret cell that answered to the CIA and Pentagon.
Hutson cited sources close to the trial who said one of the brothers had been told that if he agreed to read a confession prepared by Iranian authorities in front of a video camera, both would be released. It remains unclear whether either of the brothers have appeared in taped confessions.
Iranian American scholar Haleh Esfandiari was released from prison in 2007 after confessing to taking part in a U.S.-backed program to foment unrest in Iran.
Rights activists say the current case so far hinges solely on taped confessions by imprisoned suspects.
“The Iranian government has not produced a shred of evidence to back these outlandish claims,” Hutson said.
“My children are innocent,” the brothers’ mother said in an interview published Wednesday on the Persian-language news website Rooz, adding that “it is possible that they tortured my children into making filmed confessions.”
Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.
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