An Iranian student in the Netherlands says his satirical posts on Facebook have led to the arrest of his father in Iran. Yashar Khameneh fears his father will be executed. ‘I never thought they would lay a finger on him,’ Yashar told Radio Netherlands Worldwide.
On the satirical web page ‘Campaign to remind Shi'ites of Imam Naghi’ (link: https://www.facebook.com/Emam.Naghi), contributors comment on religious, political and social topics. Not everyone is a fan, says Yashar. ‘We wanted to break the taboo on religion. Many people in Iran have strict religious views and do not tolerate laughing about faith. But we don't insult anyone; we just want people to be more open-minded. In Europe, jokes are told about Christianity and Judaism.’
Yashar joined under his real name, but within a few weeks he began posting anonymously. That appears to have been a costly error. ‘We didn't realise the site would become so popular,’ he says. ‘And I thought: I'm in the Netherlands, so they won't be able to trace what I write back to me.’ Yashar is studying International Business Management at the Dutch university in Eindhoven. Since enrolling in 2009, he has been home to visit Iran twice. He applied to the Dutch government for asylum in February this year.
‘I never planned to remain in the Netherlands and I was never politically active in Iran,’ says Yashar. But after he began posting on the Facebook site he quickly noticed threatening signals. ‘Spies were setting up false profiles on the site and using them to gather information on active members.’
In May, the Iranian authorities showed up at Yashar's parents’ home. ‘It appears that his father is being held by the security wing of the Revolutionary Guard,’ says UK-based Iranian human rights lawyer Shadi Sadr. The guard set up a cyber intelligence unit three years ago and ever since they have been going after internet activists, Sabr explains.
Threat of execution
‘The Revolutionary Guard are the worst,’ says Sadr. They are known for producing false confessions which are then used to convict perceived enemies of the regime. The lawyer believes Yashar's father will be charged with financing anti-Islamic activities. ‘That could get him the death penalty,’ Sadr adds.
‘My father has nothing to do with it,’ Yashar says. ‘He merely paid for my studies in the Netherlands.’
‘We are seeing that more and more often. People are being punished via their family members,’ says journalist Lida Hosseini Nejad of Radio Zamaneh, a Persian radio station in Amsterdam. She points to a recent case of Iranian BBC journalists whose families are being put under pressure in Iran.
Yashar says his father telephoned and pleaded with him to provide the Iranian authorities with passwords and other information. But he refused, ‘because they would have arrested my father anyway.’ He says Teheran is wrongly accusing him of being the manager of the critical website. ‘But the manager is in Iran, at least he says so. We don't know each other personally,’ says Yashar. ‘I asked him by e-mail to shut down the site but he says that won't help my father.’
No consular help from the Netherlands
Lawyer Sadr is calling on the Dutch government to do all it can for Yashar. The foreign affairs ministry in The Hague tells Radio Netherlands Worldwide it is still trying to verify Yashar's story through EU member states' representatives in Teheran. The ministry says it has received no official request for aid from Yashar or his family. Because he is not a Dutch national, the ministry says, the Dutch embassy does not have the authority to lend his family consular assistance.
‘The Iranian government insists that I come explain what I have done,’ says Yashar. ‘But I won't do that, of course, because I know exactly what would happen. It wouldn't save my father, and I certainly wouldn't survive either.’