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Source: The Guardian

Jun 28, 2024

I endured Evin, Iran’s most notorious jail. I can’t understand how Sweden can leave its citizen to die there

I’m overjoyed two Swedes were released as part of a swap deal – but to leave another behind on death row is unconscionable

  • Siamak Namazi is an Iranian-American businessman and former hostage

I am a former hostage. I spent eight years enduring captivity and cruelty in Iran’s notorious Evin prison. Last year I was released as part of a controversial prisoner deal between the US and Iran, similar to the one that brought Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori home to the UK two years ago.

I firmly believe that we cannot abandon our innocent citizens in the dungeons of rogue states. Hostage deals, although distasteful, are necessary. We must do whatever it takes to save our citizens at risk while imposing harsh punishments to deter hostage-taking once and for all. Yet even I find Sweden’s recent hostage deal unpalatable.

Recently, the Swedish government struck a hostage deal with Iran, swapping its citizens Johan Floderus and Saeed Azizi on 15 June for Hamid Nouri – a former Iranian judiciary official sentenced to life imprisonment in Sweden for his role in the mass executions in Iran during the 1980s.

I am overjoyed to see Floderus and Azizi back home with their loved ones, but Stockholm’s decision to strike that deal and leave behind a Swedish citizen facing execution in Iran was unconscionable.

Ahmadreza Djalali, a Swedish-Iranian physician with expertise in disaster medicine, has been held on trumped-up charges in Evin prison since 2016, and on death row since 2017.

The United Nations has investigated his case, deemed his arrest arbitrary and called for his unconditional release, as have many international human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Scholars at Risk. The Swedish government undoubtably understood that abandoning him was akin to signing his death warrant.

Siamak Namazi, right, and Morad Tahbaz leave the plane after returning to the US on 18 September 2023 as part of a prisoner swap with Iran. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/AFP/Getty Images

If this deal proves anything, it is that the Swedish government placed a hierarchy on the value of the lives of different citizens and was a highly incompetent negotiator. Nouri was a convicted war criminal complicit in the death of hundreds of Iranian political prisoners.

Simply put, he was the most important prisoner the Islamic Republic had in Europe. Sweden says Tehran refused to recognise Ahmadreza as a Swedish citizen, but I believe it could have secured the release of all its nationals and several other European hostages, too, had it understood the value of the card it was holding.

Stockholm also failed to consider why Tehran insisted on holding on to an innocent hostage when he was no longer needed. The mullahs wanted to humiliate Sweden and show that western governments, despite their beautiful words about human rights, are no different to them.

That even Sweden, a beacon of human rights, is willing to see one of its citizens killed in order to free others they actually cared about. The Islamic Republic also wanted members of the Iranian diaspora to understand they are not safe, and the regime can do absolutely whatever it wants to them and get away with it.

Sadly, this was not the first time Ahmadreza, who is reportedly on hunger strike, was left behind. He was purportedly the main candidate to be swapped for Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat imprisoned in Belgium for attempting to smuggle explosives for a planned attack against an Iranian opposition group in Paris.

Yet his fate changed when Sweden arrested and sentenced Nouri, who had close ties to some of the most senior figures in the Islamic Republic.

I was still in Evin prison when Ahmadreza was omitted from the Belgium deal. As someone who had experienced the despair of being left behind from hostage deals several times myself, I understood his pain – though I wasn’t on death row. So I suggested we take daily walks and share stories about our lives before imprisonment.

He would tell me about growing up in Iran and becoming a doctor, meeting his wife and falling in love, ending up in Italy and eventually Sweden, and how proud he is of his daughter, who was excelling in medical school.

He lamented his 12-year-old son having to grow up without having his father around. His biggest desire was to hold his family in his arms again.

On rare occasions, he opened up about his darkest days. He told me about the times when his captors took him to the brink of execution to bring pressure to bear on his would-be rescuers, and how in one instance he was tossed back in a solitary cell for five months to await his death.

One morning, his sadistic jailers told him he would be hanged at sunrise the next day, and gave him what they said was a final call to his wife to say goodbye. He wished they had killed him in the first year of his arrest. “Maybe my wife and kids would have been over it by now and wouldn’t have suffered so much all these years,” he said, fighting back tears. As always, he omitted any mention of his own agony.

I’m no stranger to Iran’s nastiness. I spent eight long years as that wicked regime’s captive, enduring everything from months of solitary confinement to beatings and unspeakable humiliation. They even threw my then 80-year-old father in a solitary cell near mine to turn up the pressure. And yet even I cannot grasp the cruelty that Ahmadreza has endured.

On one of our walks, I suggested we revel in imagining finding the notorious hanging judge who had signed both our sentences in an empty street some day, and breaking that evil man’s bones with a bat.

He made me feel ashamed of myself instead. “If Judge Salavati comes here today and has a heart attack in front of me, I would rush to his rescue. I’m a doctor, and it’s my duty to help anyone who is in pain – even if that person is out to kill me.”

That is the character of Ahmadreza Djalali: a noble man, whose death sentence from a totalitarian regime was reaffirmed when the government of Sweden decided his life wasn’t worth saving.

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