Iranian authorities arrested humanitarian medicine expert Ahmadreza Djalali during a 2016 visit to Iran, charged him with spying and sentenced him to death in a sham trial. His family has not given up hope.
Ten days ago, Vida Mehrannia was relieved when she heard that her husband, Dr. Ahmadreza Djalali, had received Swedish citizenship. It gives her hope for a resolution to the family's nightmare: "I was so happy, because I got some hope that the Swedish government can [do] more to help my husband and he will get more support from Sweden," the 43-year-old told DW.
The Swedish immigration authorities' decision to grant Djalali citizenship has made a difference in the case. "Of course it gives the Swedish ministry of Foreign Affairs a formal right to actually meet with him because he is now a Swedish citizen," says Ami Hedenborg of Amnesty International's Sweden branch. The doctor's former status in Sweden – right of residence – did not allow for visits.
Fatal trip home
The disaster medicine expert has worked with researchers from all over the world to improve the capacity of hospitals in countries suffering from extreme poverty or affected by disasters and armed conflicts. He taught at the Karolinska Institute of Medicine in Stockholm, and also worked in the research department of the Free University Brussels (VUB).
Djalali's international career came to an abrupt end when Iranian authorities arrested him as he traveled to the country to attend medical conventions in Tehran and Shiraz. They tried him on charges of spying for Israel more than a year later, and finally sentenced him to death in October 2017 for "cooperating with an enemy state."
Family in shock
Back in Stockholm, his wife says she never would have thought such an outcome could occur. "I was shocked because it cannot be possible to get a death sentence without any evidence. I was under a lot of emotional pressure."
Somehow, Mehrannia had to explain to her children, aged 6 and 15, why their father hadn't come home. The younger child still doesn't know that he might never see his father again. "It is not possible for me to say anything to my son, and explain to him that they want to execute his father," she says, adding that she would not have been able to stand the situation without the help of her family in Iran and friends in Sweden.
Colleagues rally to help
Several international appeals have been made on the doctor's behalf. Amnesty International has been on the case ever since the doctor's arrest. Last November, 75 Nobel laureates wrote a letter to Iran's UN ambassador pleading for Djalali's release. In mid-January 2018, the Swedish Academy of Sciences, Amnesty and the doctor's former employer, the Karolinska Institute, organized a demonstration demanding his release.
He is a wonderful person and an impressive scientist, says Lisa Kurland, a senior research fellow at the institute. Djalali knew how badly disasters can affect the population, and wanted to use his expertise to help. "He knew how natural disasters affect people, because he had seen the earthquakes in Iran and experienced how they were being dealt with. He really wanted to make a change for the Iranian people in such disaster situations," she added.
Foreign appeals unsuccessful
The Brussels-based VUB has also appealed to the Iranian government. "This scientist was convicted in a closed procedure, and now faces the death penalty," said University President Caroline Pauwels. She told Belgian media that he was a highly esteemed colleague involved in important research, and that his sentencing was an outrage: "This scientist was sentenced in a non-public trial and now faces the death penalty."
Mehrannia first kept the arrest from the public for months because she hoped her husband would be set free, but she is now actively working to contact his former colleagues and the media. She is convinced that international attention can still help him. And she is convinced that her husband will return home to his life and family in Sweden.
Too little, too late?
It was not enough that he was naturalized, and it came too late, argues Yasamin Alttahir, a Mideast expert with Amnesty International in London, adding that she sees little chance of Stockholm intervening this late in the game.
Iran's judiciary, meanwhile, refuses all legal action against the death penalty, including efforts to review proceedings that Amnesty says are marked by numerous irregularities and legal errors.
At this point in time, consular assistance for Djalali can only be "very limited," Alttahir says, adding that only the hope of an amnesty remains, perhaps in a few weeks' time on the Persian New Year.
Djalali is not the only Iranian with dual citizenship languishing in an Iranian prison. According to Reuters about 30 people with dual citizenship – including Dutch, British and American nationals – were arrested in Iran over the past two years. In early February, Kavous Emami, a Canadian-Iranian environment researcher, allegedly committed suicide in Tehran's Evin prison. The Canadian government has demanded a probe into the circumstances behind his death.