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December 19, 2003     Heritage Florida Jewish News
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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, DECEMBER 19, 2003 PAGE 13 By Michael J. Jordan NEWYORK, Dec. 9 (JTA)-- i]abak Tehrani was 17 years old in June 1994 when he hugged his parents and two younger brothers, left his home in Tehran and, guided by a well-paid smuggler, tried to slip across rugged moun- tains into Pakistan. He was joined by his friend Shaheen Nikkhoo, 20. The twowere caught by Ira- nian police at the border town of Zahedan and haven't been heard from since. Tehrani and Nikkhoo are .among 11 Iranian Jews, rang- tng in age from 15 to 57 at the time of their ill-fated flights, Who were caught and arrested while trying to leave Iran in the 1990s. All attempts to learn of their fate or Win their freedom through personal pleas or backdoor diplomacy have been rnet with evasions or silence by Iranian authorities. Now, for the first time, their families and the Jewish orga- nizations backing them have decided to go public and enlist the help of the United Nations and media. "The families have lost pa- rle nce, and we've lost hope that those responsible dements in Iran will release these prison- ers voluntarily," said Sam ermanian, secretary-general of the Iranian American Jew- ish Federation. "We are there- fore in need of international Support." According to the Iranian American Jewish Federation's latest information, Kermanian Said, the 11 men were spotted live earlier this year in a 'ehran prison. Iran's representation in the IJnited States, the Iranian Mis- Sion to the United Nations, did aot return a call seeking com- aent. The other missing Jews have been identified as Behzad Sal- ary, 30, and Farhad Ezzati, 31, I th of Kerrnanshah, who trav- led together and disappeared ept. 21, 1994; Homayoon lazadeh, 45, Omid Solouki, 24, and brothers Reuben and brahim Kohen-Maslikh, 26 25 respectively, all of hiraz, who disappeared Dec. , 1994; and Nourollah ',abizadeh-Felfeli, age un- tnown, and brothers Cyrus Ebrahim Ghahramani, 64 66 respectively, also of . ermanshah, who went miss- gFeb. 12,1997. i.!h twelfth Jew, Eshagh assid, 66, of Hamadan, last S ke with his sister in Febru- 1997 and reportedly indi- Cated he would try to leave the untry His fate is unclear, wever, and he hasn't been kluded among the list of issing. Flight across Iran's south- border with Pakistan duringthe mid-1990s,when rules were more Kermanian said. "Everybody chooses this but of Jews and rail- i,"he said. The restrictions on Jews in were particularly tough the mid-1990s. For entire families were at least member had to remain Emigration restrictions been eased somewhat then. Missing Iranian Jew BABAK TEHRANI. That reportedly was the case with the Tehrani family. Most of the family was given per- mission to leave and, with two younger children to consider, the parents decided that Babak would remain in Iran as the token family member. Itwas only when the family arrived in Vienna for the pro- cessing of their American vi- sas 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 whole- sale Jewish exoduswould dam- age Iran's image. Indeed, whenever Iran's human rights record is criti- cized, as in a Canadian-spon- sored resolution currently cir- culating 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 represen- tatives 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 gov- ernment in Persia in 2,500 years to make the country de- void of Jews, and that would not reflectweil on the regime," Kermanian said. In the first few years after the men disappeared, advo- cates hoped Iran's new presi- dent, Mohammed Khatami, would prove to be as moderate as he portrayed himself. But the moderation---especially vis-a-vis the Jews--never ma- terialized, they say. The first publicized word of the 11 came in September 2000, when Malcolm Hoenlein, executivevice chair- man of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, broached the subject with Mehdi Kharroubi, the speaker of Iran's Parliament. Kharroubi, who was visiting New York, reportedly said he would look into the issue. But that contact came amid more intense, public lobbying efforts to win the release of 10 of the original"Iran lY--Jews jailed in 1999 on charges of spying for Israel. Since then, little has been heard publicly about the missing 11. That changed a month ago, when Nikkhou's mother held a highly publicized meeting in Tehran with Ambeyi Ligabo, the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and ex- pression. Ligabo's visit, said to be the first to Iran by a U.N. human Missing Iranian Jew SHAHEEN NIKKHO0. rights envoy in seven years, focused mostly on the deten- tion of numerous political dis- sidents. Ligabo's public criti- cism of Iranian policy since then has included no mention of the mi ,sing Jews. Once Nikkhou's mother went forward and the Iranian media seized on it, advocates in the United States say they decided to take their activism public. "The families made the de- cision that they feel they have nothing left to lose, and I agree," said Hoenlein, who, togetherwith Kermanian, sent a letter to U.N. Secretary-Gen- eral Kofi Annan on the sub- ject. "After nine years with little progress, we still haven't been able to even verify if they're alive or in prison," Hoenlein said. The letter appeals to Annan to ascertain the whereabouts and condition of the missing men, and to obtain their re- lease. Kermanian also has enlisted the help of the Farsi-language division of Israel Radio, widely heard in Iran, to broadcast an appeal by Babak Tehrani's mother and an interview with Kerrnanian pointing out that the missing men are now in the hands of Iranian intelli- gence officials. For the families, the wait and the uncertainty have been almost unbearable. "When they caught Shaheen, they put all his fam- ily into a mental prison," said Ramin Nikkhoo, a Los Ange- les chiropractor and Shaheen Nikkhoo's older brother. "I wake up and think about him. I shower, I eat, I go to work, and all the time I think about him. I feel the same anguish as I did on the first day, nine years ago.", Sia Tehrani, the younger brother of Babak, works in his father's shoe store in down- town Los Angeles and trans- lated for his parents, Yousef and Elena. "Babak was a top student, he liked to study and he liked to play soccer," Sia Tehrani said. "Since he was arrested, my morn cries every night, she takes lots of pills for de- pression, and my dad has pains from the stress and nerves all over his body." As the families voice their anguish publicly for the first time, their desperation is pal- pable. "The Iranians can't just get away with kidnapping men, they have to give them back to their families," Ramin Nikkhoo said. "This is the 21st century; this isn't Nazi Ger- many." Sia Tehrani pleaded with a reporter, "Can you help us see President Bush? Is there any way to talk to him? For nine years we have heard nothing. Now we want to get involved. We need help. We need help." Kermanian defended his decision to work until now behind the scenes. "There is no doubt that had we gone public before having sufficient evidence, the first reaction by those holding them, out of fear they would be held responsible internally, might be to get rid of 'evi- dence'---kiUing the prisoners and getting rid of their bod- ies," Kermanian said. "They've done that before, where the bodies of reporters, political dissidents and others surfaced months later." Now, Kermanian said, ac- tivists have heard multiple eyewitness accounts from those who saw the missing men in Zahedan, the city whe re they reportedly were first de- tained, then in prison in Tehran. Those reports have been corroborated by Iranian judi- ciary and intelligence sources, he said. The plan now is to ramp up publicpressure, Hoenleinsaid, though few seem optimistic about their fate. "These sightings always give some hope," Hoenlein said. "But we don't know if they're real or deliberate misinforma- tion by those who have ulte- rior motives." 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