Iranian scholar sentenced to death on spying charge

A judge in Tehran has ordered the death penalty for Dr Ahmadreza Djalali, a Stockholm-based Iranian academic convicted on charges of spying for Israel after being forced to sign a confession. He had been invited to Iran to teach classes in medical responses to disaster emergencies.

Djalali, an Iranian-born resident of Sweden who teaches disaster medicine at universities in Italy and Belgium, was arrested in April 2016 while visiting Iran to participate in a series of academic workshops, as reported by University World News.

Djalali is a medical doctor and lecturer at the Stockholm medical university, Karolinska Institute, Sweden, and a research associate in disaster medicine at the Centre for Research and Education in Emergency and Disaster Medicine at the University of Eastern Piedmont in Novara, Italy. He also teaches at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Brussels, Belgium. His work focuses on improving hospitals’ emergency responses to armed terrorism and radiological, chemical and biological threats.

The Committee of Concerned Scientists – an independent organisation of scientists, physicians, engineers and scholars devoted to protecting human rights and scientific freedom – said Djalali had visited Iran at the invitation of Tehran University to teach students taking a masters degree in disaster medicine. He had been there many times previously without incident, and had worked with the Red Crescent.

According to the New York-based Scholars at Risk network or SAR, he was subsequently detained in Evin Prison, forced to sign a confession relating to crimes against the national security of Iran, and threatened with the charge of ‘enmity against God’ (moharebeh), which carries the death sentence. His initial trial took place on 22 August.

SAR reported that Djalali was accused of “collaboration with a hostile government” and “acting against national security”.

During his long imprisonment, Djalali has been held intermittently in solitary confinement, denied a lawyer of his choosing, and allegedly subjected to psychological torture, SAR and the Committee of Concerned Scientists reported.

Djalali was convicted of espionage, which he adamantly denies, and was sentenced to death on 21 October. SAR said the Iranian government has not publicly disclosed any evidence to support the allegations against Djalali, which “appear to stem from his ties to the international academic community”.

Nature reported that according to Djalali's wife Vida Mehrannia and Italian diplomatic sources, Djalali was accused of obtaining money, academic positions and research projects in exchange for spying on Iran for Israel.

Shortly before the sentence was announced, a close contact of Djalali's circulated a document that claims to be a literal transcription of a handwritten text produced by Djalali inside Evin Prison. The document states that Djalali believes he was arrested for refusing to spy for the Iranian intelligence service, Nature reported.

The document stated that in 2014 two representatives of the Iranian military and intelligence service asked Djalali to spy on European countries for Iran – in particular, on “critical infrastructures, counter-terrorism and CBRNE [chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives] capabilities, sensitive operational plans, and also research projects, relevant to terrorism and crisis”. It says he refused, Nature reported.

SAR reported that Djalali believes he has been targeted because of his ties to the international academic community.

The co-chairs of the Committee of Concerned Scientists – Joel L Lebowitz, Paul H Plotz, Walter Reich, Eugene M Chudnovsky and Alexander Greer – said in a statement: “We are unaware of any evidence supporting the accusations against him. It is very unclear to us why he has been targeted in this manner and we are extremely disturbed that Dr Djalali is at such grave risk of execution.”

SAR has urgently asked for anyone concerned to write emails, letters and faxes urging the Iranian authorities to reverse Djalali’s capital sentence immediately, to ensure his unconditional release from prison, and to drop all charges against him.

Djalali has two children aged five and 14.