A 46-year-old Iranian American from San Diego said Tuesday that Iran had sentenced him to 18 years in prison for “collaborating with a hostile government,” becoming the latest dual citizen to be jailed in a secret trial in the Islamic Republic.
Speaking to The Times from Ninava jail in Gorgan, in northeast Iran, Gholamrez Reza Shahini, who goes by the nickname Robin, said he was visiting his mother and other family members in Iran when he was arrested July 11.
His trial took place last week, and he was convicted Saturday after a three-hour court proceeding, he said.
Shahini’s sentencing comes one week after Iranian American businessman Siamak Namazi and his 80-year-old father, Baquer Namazi, were each sentenced to 10 years on similarly vague charges of collaborating with the U.S.
A growing number of dual nationals have been imprisoned in Iran since Tehran reached an agreement with world powers to end its disputed nuclear program in exchange for eased economic sanctions.
Let’s put pressure on the Iranian government so that it will not happen to another citizen. Maybe I am Iranian, but I am also American.
The deal appeared to herald a thawing of relations between Iran and the U.S., which cut off diplomatic relations after the 1979 Islamic revolution. In January, three Americans jailed in Iran, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, were freed in a prisoner exchange.
Moderate President Hassan Rouhani’s government called on dual nationals to return to Iran to help rebuild the economy. But a series of arrests this year signal a power struggle with hard-liners who want to undermine Rouhani’s outreach to the West and use the prisoners as bargaining chips in future negotiations.
Shahini, who left Iran as a refugee and emigrated to the United States in the early 2000s, said that prosecutors presented as evidence Facebook and social media posts he wrote in 2009 in support of the Green Movement, the pro-democracy demonstrations that erupted in Iran following allegations of fraud in the reelection of then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“I don’t know why they even chose to arrest me,” said Shahini, who graduated in May from San Diego State University with a bachelor’s degree in international conflict resolution.
He said that the day he was arrested — by members of the intelligence unit of the elite Revolutionary Guards — he was 10 days shy of returning to San Diego. He was due to start graduate school this fall at San Diego State in homeland security studies.
Iran’s official media has not reported Shahini’s sentencing. The State Department did not immediately comment on the news.
For two weeks after his arrest, Shahini said, he was kept in solitary confinement in a small room with a bright light that made it difficult for him to keep track of the days.
His family in Gorgan — 250 miles northeast of Tehran, near the Caspian Sea — has been able to visit him in prison, and he has been able to make phone calls. But Shahini said he prefers they don’t see him because the difficult prison conditions make his relatives emotional.
He said he was in a jail ward with 200 to 300 prisoners, many of whom had been convicted of murder and drug charges. There were eight bathrooms and a handful of showers.
He suffers from asthma and dental problems that have not been addressed even though prison doctors have seen him, he said.
Shahini, who formerly worked at a car repair shop, said he had studied national security to build a bridge between Iran and the United States, but that the hard-line Revolutionary Guards opposed better ties between the countries.
“I’m a U.S. citizen,” Shahini said. “Let’s put pressure on the Iranian government so that it will not happen to another citizen. Maybe I am Iranian, but I am also American.”
He said that once Iranian media outlets announce his sentencing, he will start a hunger strike.
“I won’t stop unless I am free or die,” he said.
Shahini has converted to Christianity, according to family members, which could add to his troubles with the Islamic Republic.
His sister, Fatemeh Shahini, a former nurse who lives in San Diego, said the news of her brother’s sentencing was “a nightmare.”
His girlfriend, Sevil Suleymani, said the swiftness of the proceedings shocked Shahini and his family.
“After hearing his sentence, he is in a bad situation,” she said. “He is really scared. It is shocking for all us. Nobody expected this.”
Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim contributed to this report from Tehran.
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