Advocates for missing Iranians go public with struggle

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new york | After years of low-profile pressure led nowhere, families and advocates of 11 missing Iranian Jews have gone public with criticism of Iran.

The 11, including several teenagers, reportedly disappeared in separate groups from 1994 to 1997 while trying to flee illegally over the Iran-Pakistan border.

“The families have lost patience, and we’ve lost hope that those responsible elements in Iran will release these prisoners voluntarily,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary-general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation. “We are therefore in need of international support.”

Kermanian said his Los Angeles-based group would try to build a coalition that would include other Jewish organizations, human-rights watchdogs, the United Nations and foreign governments to exert pressure on Iran’s ruling mullahs.

According to the Iranian American Jewish Federation’s latest information, Kermanian said, the 11 men were spotted alive earlier this year in a Tehran prison.

Iran’s representation in the United States, the Iranian Mission to the United Nations, did not return a call seeking comment.

The missing Jews have been identified as Babak Shaoulin Tehrani, who would now be 28, and Shaheen Nikkhou, 29, both of Tehran, who left together and went missing along with their Muslim smuggler, Atat Mohamad Rigi, in May 1994.

Behzad Salary, 30, and Farhad Ezzati, 31, both of Kermanshah, traveled together and disappeared Sept. 21, 1994.

Homayoon Balazadeh, 45, Omid Solouki, 24, and brothers Reuben and Ebrahim Kohen-Maslikh, 26 and 25 respectively, all of Shiraz, disappeared Dec. 8, 1994.

Nourollah Rabizadeh-Felfeli, age unknown, and brothers Cyrus and Ebrahim Ghahramani, 64 and 66 respectively, also of Kermanshah, went missing Feb. 12, 1997.

A 12th Jew, Eshagh Hassid, 66, of Hamadan, last spoke with his sister in February 1997 and reportedly indicated he would try to leave the country. His fate is unclear, however, and he hasn’t been included among the list of missing.

Flight across Iran’s southeastern border with Pakistan is common and was even more so during the mid-1990s, when emigration rules were more stringent, Kermanian said.

“Everybody chooses this route for different reasons, but thousands of Jews and millions of non-Jews have left Iran through these means,” he said.

The restrictions on Jews in Iran were particularly tough during the mid-1990s. For example, entire families were forbidden to emigrate; at least one member had to remain behind.

Emigration restrictions have been eased somewhat since then.

That reportedly was the case with the Tehrani family. Most of the family was given permission to leave and, with two younger children to consider, the parents decided that their 19-year-old son, Babak, would remain in Iran as the token family member.

It was only when the family arrived in Vienna for the processing of their American visas that they learned that Babak had disappeared while fleeing on his own, Kermanian said.

Some have suggested that Iran wants at least some Jews to remain in the country as “virtual hostages” to deter any potential attack from Israel. Others say they fear a wholesale Jewish exodus would damage Iran’s image.

Indeed, whenever Iran’s human rights record is criticized, as in a Canadian-sponsored resolution currently circulating at the United Nations, Iranian officials counter by noting that several of the country’s main minority groups — Armenians, Assyrians, Zoroastrians and Jews — have elected representatives in Parliament.

Nevertheless, since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, the Jewish community has dwindled to between 20,000 to 25,000, down from 100,000 in 1979.

“This would be the first government in Persia in 2,500 years to make the country devoid of Jews, and that would not reflect well on the regime,” Kermanian said.