Protesters at UN to urge release of Iranian Americans

International organizations to hold vigil outside UN headquarters on Wednesday.

Esfandiari 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Esfandiari 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
A group of international human rights organizations will hold a vigil outside the United Nations headquarters in New York, Wednesday, to urge the government of Iran to release four Iranian Americans being held on charges of endangering the country's national security. The most publicized case has been the incarceration of Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a prominent Washington think tank, who was detained in Iran after traveling to visit her 93-year-old mother in December, 2006. Esfandiari, a dual Iranian-American citizen, has been under virtual house arrest since she was stopped by three masked, knife-wielding men in a taxi on her way to the airport to catch a flight back to Washington in late December. The men threatened to kill her, and took away all of her belongings, including her Iranian and American passports. Applying for replacement documents led to a series of interrogations that stretched out over the next six weeks, sometimes continuing for as many as four days a week. In May Esfandiari was arrested and subsequently imprisoned at the notorious Evin prison. Iran's judiciary spokesman recently issued a statement that the Ministry of Intelligence was charging Esfandiari with espionage, actions against national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic. Since Esfandiari's arrest, the government of Iran has subsequently arrested three other Iranian-Americans, Kian Tajbakhsh, Parnaz Azima, and Ali Shakeri, and has engaged in a widespread crackdown on civil society in Iran. All four of the detained Iranian-Americans face serious charges and could be sentenced to long prison terms. The last time the US faced similar tensions over detained Americans was in the 1979-81 hostage crisis, when 52 Americans were held for over 400 days. In response, Amnesty International, the American-Islamic Congress, Human Rights Watch, Vital Voices Global Partnership, the Near Eastern Studies Department of Princeton University, and several other organizations will hold a vigil in New York on Wednesday, June 27. "The idea for the vigil is to take it to the highest level and raise awareness," said Zahir Janmohamed, Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International USA. Last year the US announced that it would allocate $75 million to promote democracy in Iran. "Since then, the Iranian government has been using that as a pretext to cast suspicion on anyone rallying for reform," said Janmohamed. The purpose of the vigil is to bring these cases to the attention of the UN and to urge the international body to pressure Iran to release the four Iranian Americans. "The Iranian government saw these people as easy victims to grab and detain, and what we are asking for is their immediate and unconditional release," said executive director of the American Islamic Congress Zainab Al-Suwaij, who will be speaking at Wednesday's event. Also to speak at the event will be Shaul Bakhash, Esfandiari's husband, Clarence J. Robinson professor of history at George Mason University and Sheila Dauer, director of the Women's Human Rights Program at Amnesty International USA.