top of page

Source: RFE/RL

Feb 14, 2023

By Golnaz Esfandiari - Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Tens of thousands of Iranian-Americans, including supporters of the exiled former crown prince of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, held a rally in Los Angeles recently to show their support for the ongoing anti-regime protests in the Islamic republic.

Among them was a man who has shunned the limelight for decades: Parviz Sabeti, the former deputy head of SAVAK, the feared security and intelligence service of the shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The presence of Sabeti, whose photos were published on social media by his daughter Pardis Sabeti, at the pro-democracy demonstration triggered outrage. Some have called for him to be put on trial for alleged rights abuses committed during the monarchy.

"44 years ago today, our native country fell into darkness. Hoping this year brings light and solidarity," Pardis Sabeti, a professor of biology at Harvard University, wrote on Twitter on February 12, the day after the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 that overthrew the monarchy and brought to power the current clerical regime.

In her tweet, Pardis Sabeti used the hashtag, "Woman, life, freedom," which has become the main slogan of Iran's antiestablishment protests, which were triggered by the September death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old who was arrested by the morality police.

The tweet prompted praise for Sabeti from Iranian monarchists, who hailed him as a "a living legend" and "a man of honor" who kept Iran safe from "terrorists" during the rule of the late shah.

But others said the 86-year-old Sabeti should be prosecuted for alleged rights abuses, including torture and the execution of political prisoners. They said Sabeti's legacy went against the demands of Iran's protest movement for greater social and political freedom.

"She has some nerves sharing a photo of Parviz Sabeti and talking about 'light and solidarity,'" London-based Iranian filmmaker Kaveh Abbasian said on Twitter. "In a free Iran, he would be put to trial."

Exiled Iranian artist Barbad Golshiri said it was "time for the victims, the families of the tortured, the executed to launch a [legal] case against Sabeti."

Reza Pahlavi, the son of the late shah of Iran, speaks at the National Press Club about the mass protests in Iran in Washington, D.C., in October 2022.

The rally in L.A. was held two days after a group of exiled opposition activists and celebrities, including Reza Pahlavi, met at Georgetown University to discuss the future of Iran's pro-democracy movement. The group pleaded for unity and an end to infighting to help replace Iran's theocratic system with a secular democracy.

"Who could have imagined that the torturer of SAVAK, whose hands are stained with the blood and suffering of many, would bring us freedom," veteran Tehran-based journalist Mohammad Aghazadeh said on Twitter.

Aghazadeh called on the exiled opposition to break with figures like Sabeti, otherwise they would be "accomplices to his crimes."

Pahlavi has not commented on the controversy surrounding Sabeti. But he has previously said that he opposes the use of torture.

Opposition activist Mahdieh Golrou, who was jailed in Iran, said some opposition activists have ignored alleged crimes committed under the shah, who died in Egypt in 1980. "It seems that the problem is not with crimes, but with criminals. If the criminal wears a tie it's not a problem, the issue is with turbans," Golrou said on Twitter. "Torture is a crime regardless of who committed it."

Germany-based political activist Mehdi Fatapour, who was jailed under the shah for his peaceful activism and subjected to torture, told RFE/RL that Sabeti had never expressed remorse. "Unfortunately, Sabeti has defended SAVAK's actions," Fatapour said, adding that the secret police's mission was to create "fear" and preserve a dictatorship.

Fatapour said he was arrested by SAVAK on two separate occasions -- in 1971 and 1973 -- for organizing student protests. He said he still suffered from the torture he endured in detention. "The second time, the torture was very severe because they wanted to know my contacts, their names, and addresses. My interrogator told me that I was lucky that I didn't die under torture," he recalled.

"SAVAK created fear, it arrested, jailed, and tortured all those opposing [the shah], including students, intellectuals, writers, and opposition activists," he said. "Not only did this policy not establish security, but it became a main factor for insecurity."

In a 1977 interview with The Washington Post, Sabeti said Iranians afraid of SAVAK were "being influenced by foreign journalists' accounts. Some of the foreign journalists come here.... They see SAVAK behind every tree."

In a 2012 interview with Voice of America, Sabeti said he "opposed torture." "Because I studied law, I have always opposed anything that leads to torture," he said.

bottom of page