Family fears for health of scholar sentenced to death

Evin Prison in Tehran was built in 1972 under the reign of Shah Pahlavi. The facility includes an execution yard, a courtroom and separate departments for male and female prisoners.

It was originally constructed to hold 320 inmates, of which 20 were solitary cells. By 1977 an expansion took place to hold more than 1,500 prisoners, including 100 solitary cells. Under the Islamic Republic, the population of inmates increased to well over 15,000, without any further structural expansion.

The prison is internationally known for torturing of its prisoners and terrible misconducts and has been severely criticised by Amnesty International. The prison is also referred to as ‘Evin University’, a name it was given due to the number of intellectuals and academics incarcerated there.

It is forbidden to take pictures of the prison sites, which was the cause for Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemis’ arrest in 2003. She later died of blunt trauma to the head while imprisoned. The Iranian government claimed that she had died due to a stroke during interrogation, but medical examination of her body revealed evidence of rape, torture and a skull fracture.

The descriptions of the misconducts in the prison are nothing less than brutal.

It is here in this miserable environment that Ahmadreza Djalali has been imprisoned for the past two years, without a fair trial, disregarding all basic international standards, and sentenced to death. According to his wife, Vida, he has lost in total 20kg. He was 82kg when he was arrested and is now 58kg. The latest picture of him speaks clearly.

How is it possible that this Iranian-Swedish specialist in disaster medicine who carried out a PhD at Karolinska Institute (KI) in Sweden and successfully did a postdoc at CRIMEDIM in Italy, an international centre for research and education in emergency and disaster medicine, and who has cooperated with research groups worldwide and held lectures and educational workshops in numerous universities, now faces a death sentence?

Lisa Kurland, professor in emergency medicine at Örebro University in Sweden, who was at that time associate professor at Karolinska Institute and main supervisor during his PhD studies, tells us that Djalali came to Sweden in 2008 because he had applied to do research at KI. He is a medical doctor and has worked clinically in Iran with disaster medicine. A great deal of his interest in disaster medicine stems from his personal experiences in Iran.

Returning his knowledge

In Iran, Kurland says, the most common catastrophe is earthquakes and when earthquakes strike the hospitals, medical systems are often wiped out. Djalali has more than 10 years of clinical experience from disaster medicine in Iran and has seen how disasters affect health care systems and people seeking emergency care. He went back to Iran every year to return his knowledge back to his home country, something he regarded to be very important.

Djalali and his family were very happy in Sweden. He went to Italy to carry out his postdoc after his PhD but decided to return to Sweden because they liked it and he wanted to build a future there for his family. Kurland describes his character as infinitely polite, humble and kind, describing him as a very empathic person and an educated man.

Dr Luca Ragazzoni, who carried out research with Djalali at CRIMEDIM in Italy, describes him as a kind and empathetic person. He was always easy to talk to, always willing to help others and get involved, Ragazzoni says.

“As a colleague, I consider him one of the most knowledgeable experts in the field of disaster medicine and hospital preparedness, and his permanence in our centre has been of great help to my colleagues and me. Through his expertise and thanks to his advice, the quality of our work greatly improved.”

Accused of spying

In 2016 Djalali was officially invited to Tehran to join a scientific conference in disaster medicine as a lecturer and also to participate in a follow-up workshop. But while travelling to visit his sister in Iran he was arrested and accused of spying, something that the Iranian government still has no proof of. He is accused of revealing national security information about Iran to Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency.

This is something that his wife has a hard time understanding.

“How is it even possible?” she asks. “It is astonishing to even believe that a scientist whose entire work is based on health care could have access to any government’s national security information. How could he even access that type of information? It is a ridiculous and outrageous accusation.”

When questioned about how often they travelled to Iran and whether they previously encountered any trouble or had any worries, Djalali’s wife responded: “No, why should we be worried? We haven’t done anything wrong? We have gone back and forth several times to Iran and there have been no problems before. Especially Djalali, who always used to say it was his responsibility to return knowledge and science to his country. He would go back often to join conferences. We have not had any problems earlier.

“This came as a total shock to us all. At first, we really believed that they had made a mistake.”

She says this whole situation has been like a nightmare. “We are really struggling at home. Every day is a struggle. The accusations are constantly changing.” She tells us about the video that they have recorded and edited, with a voice-over add that is not even Djalali’s voice, and in this video he is allegedly confessing to his crimes.

This recorded video really affected Djalali. Kurland says she talked to him on the phone in January. He is now held at the public area of the prison and not in isolation – where he was for the first three months, without access to a lawyer. In the public area he is allowed one phone call per day and he usually calls his family, but this time he called Kurland.

When asked why he called her, she says: “He had heard about the Amnesty manifestation that was going to be held at Karolinska Institute,” where both she and KI Vice-chancellor Ole Petter Ottersen made speeches.

The phone call was very special, she says. “It was strange and sad at the same time and I believe it was bugged. The call was interrupted every few minutes by a recorded voice that said something in Persian.”

False video

“The most important thing he wanted to let me know was about the false video that was circulating on the internet. He explained in detail how the recording of this video had been performed. At that time he had been held in solitary confinement for three months, he had been tortured, drugged and his family had been threatened. The videotape is totally fabricated. The situation is terrible,” Kurland says.

KI Vice-chancellor Ottersen has been and is still involved in this case. He is deeply concerned over the situation and regards this case as the most serious he has encountered in his professional career. He first took an interest while working at the University of Oslo before he came to Karolinska Institute and wrote a letter directly to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

He says it is essential that all universities engage in protecting academic freedom. Together with the rector at the Università del Piemonte Orientale, Italy, and the rector at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium, the vice-chancellor of Karolinska Institute wrote a letter to Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, head of the judiciary in Iran, expressing their deepest concern over the detention and death penalty.

From this you also understand the good relationships Djalali had with his colleagues and research collaborations, Kurland says.

Iran and China have the highest frequency of death penalties and executions in the world and Iran is also continuing to use the death penalty against juvenile offenders. Ottersen has been involved in working to abolish the death penalty for many years and says that while universities – as organisations – normally should not engage in political matters, there are some areas where they should get involved, especially when it comes to human rights.

The death penalty opposes everything that the academy stands for, says Ottersen, and universities should work together internationally to abolish it. To this end he has organised a university network against the death penalty.

Elisabeth Rachlew, professor in physics at KTH and chair of the human rights committee at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, tells us that they are part of an international academic network that is involved in opposing the death penalty of Djalali.

Early in her career Rachlew became involved in such matters, initially as an active member of Amnesty International. During her work in the United States but also during her work in the US she started the Committee for International Freedom of Scientists, or CIFS, within the American Physical Society.

"In Djalali’s case," Rachlew says, "we have written several letters and statements about his unfair trial and death sentence. One letter was written and signed by a total of 75 Nobel laureates. Several statements have been published in renowned scientific medical journals such as The Lancet and Nature. The statements and letters are directed to Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, the Iranian ambassador as well as President of Iran Hassan Rouhani."

When questioned on what they know about Iran and its government and whether they warn scientists not to travel to certain countries, Rachlew said: “No, we don’t warn them as of yet, but we are of course trying to learn as much as possible about these countries. We know for instance that the concept of human rights does not exist in the Iranian constitution. People are afraid of sharing what is going on in the country because that has consequences too. But it does not stop us from asking questions. We have to ask questions!”

Ottersen says a boycott of research and interaction between countries is not the right response. “It is important that the academic channels are open when the diplomatic ones are closed. Our researchers must of course be able to choose for themselves where they want to go.”

Academic channels build trust

“What I hope is that the academic society and our international collaborations can create trust and have a reducing effect on conflicts. We are aware from our close history that academic channels can both build trust and solve conflicts. When a government represses academic freedom and the autonomy of universities, then we should as academics criticise authorities but keep our collaborations open with the countries’ universities.”

Kurland adds that “science and scientific collaborations cannot be limited by national borders. As researchers it is our duty to exercise freedom of thought and examine matters critically. There is an absolute added value in having diversity in our societies.”

She says freedom of thought, scientists and critics have always been a threat to the closed society. “That is why it is important that freedom is preserved and protected. This is a threat to Djalali’s freedom and also an expression of the restriction of free thinking, academic freedom and human freedom.”

Ragazzoni says that for researchers, the ability to travel safely around the world is crucial. “Our work is meant to be shared with our colleagues, and this happens through international conferences, meetings and lectures in other universities.

“The possibility to engage in professional relationships with other researchers is essential to develop a network of people working together towards a common objective: to increase the body of literature on disaster medicine and increase the scientific evidence necessary to develop global strategies and take action against disasters and their consequences, in a world where global warming, conflicts and humanitarian crises represent a tremendously relevant topic.”

Granted Swedish citizenship

The latest news is that Djalali has obtained Swedish citizenship from the Swedish Migration Agency.

This is a very positive message and his wife now hopes that this will facilitate the diplomatic negotiations. Before, the Iranian government claimed that the only reason Djalali even had permanent residency in Sweden was because he was spying for Israel. His wife now hopes that the Iranian authorities will release him.

Anna Lindenfors, general secretary of Amnesty International Sweden, says that the situation is quite complex.

“We hope that the risk of them carrying out the death sentence is lower now due to the Swedish citizenship, but it is unclear what they think in Iran. At the moment our greatest worry is his health. He has lost a great deal of weight and is not allowed access to a doctor. According to his Belgian lawyer, this could be their strategy, not to carry out the death sentence but instead take his life by denying him medical care.”

She says Amnesty International has been observing Iran for a long time because people are at risk of torture, denied fair trials, denied access to lawyers and documents and the judiciary process is “poor to say the least”.

“That is why it is extremely important that we all step up and create attention around the case. To create public opinion is very important as well as to put pressure on governments. We see that this has an effect and makes a difference,” Lindenfors says, “and we will keep following Djalali’s case closely.”

Just recently Amnesty handed over well over 200,000 signatures in support of Djalali to the Iranian embassy in Sweden.

Vida Djalali is very worried about her husband and his health.

“We have asked repeatedly to have him undergo a medical examination at a hospital but this has been denied several times,” she says.

Refused medical examination

Djalali’s mother, Najobe Mortazavi, tells us that he is really struggling. His health is deteriorating and the family has asked several times to have him checked at a hospital. This has been denied every time. She has written several letters to those in charge and said that she can happily pay all costs for a medical examination, but she has been refused over and over again. She suspects the same strategy as his Belgian lawyer. They know that it will have consequences if he is executed but there are other ways of killing someone.

Another thing that affects the family is that they are not allowed to see each other through video. It is something that Djalali has asked for several times. He hasn’t seen his children in two years. The children were 4 and 13 years-old last time they saw their father and they ask about him every day.

When asked whether they would consider traveling to Iran for work, Kurland responded: “In consideration of what has happened to Djalali, I cannot, but I would like to visit Iran. It is most certainly a beautiful country.” Ragazzoni agrees and says that he would not feel safe traveling to Iran and he believes this affects research collaborations between the two countries.

This is an edited version of an article that was first published in the World Medical Journal.