DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Vida Mehrannia is trying to save her husband’s life. Iran is scheduled to execute him in nine days, before May 21.
For Iran, Ahmad Reza Jalali, 50, is a spy for Israel. To his colleagues, he is a respected physician specializing in disaster medicine, a very demanding field. For Mehrannia, he is a beloved husband.
“It’s a nightmare,” she told The Associated Press from Stockholm, where she lives with her 10-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter, who have not seen their father in the six years since his arrest. “They want to sacrifice my husband.”
Mehrannia pins her dashed hopes on Jalali’s Swedish citizenship and Stockholm’s attempts to press for his release. The extent of those efforts is unclear, although the Swedish foreign minister called her Iranian counterpart last week and, along with the European Union, expressed categorical opposition to the death penalty and demanded Jalali’s release.
But it seems that Jalali’s ties to Sweden are what landed him in an Iranian prison.
In Iran, some foreigners are pawns, both in Tehran’s internal political rivalries and in tensions between Tehran and Western capitals, analysts say. A pattern of kidnapping Westerners has become increasingly visible since the collapse of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
On Wednesday, Iran said it detained two unidentified Europeans just hours after the European Union’s envoy landed in the capital in a last-ditch effort to salvage the tattered atomic deal.
Iran has jailed at least a dozen dual nationals in recent years. Most of them are being held on widely discussed espionage charges.
Here’s a look at the forces at play in the Jalali case.
HOW IT BEGAN?
Jalali was born in the city of Tabriz, in northwestern Iran. He developed a successful career in Italy and Sweden, publishing more than 40 articles in medical journals and teaching throughout the continent. When an Iranian university invited him to a workshop in April 2016, he did not hesitate to attend.
He never saw his family again.
Security services picked him up, accused him of leaking details about Iranian nuclear scientists believed to have been killed by Mossad, and rushed him to Iran’s notorious Evin prison, where he was sentenced to death.
Meanwhile, a historic search in Sweden to hold accountable a former Iranian official accused of committing atrocities has sparked outrage in Tehran.
The two cases have overlapped uncomfortably. Hamid Nouri is on trial in Stockholm for war crimes and murders committed during the Iran-Iraq war, a conflict that ended more than a quarter century ago and haunts Tehran to this day.
WHAT IS HAPPENING BETWEEN IRAN AND SWEDEN?
For the first time, several Iranians who survived mass executions at the end of the Iran-Iraq war have taken the stand in a Swedish court.
Iran denies any link between the contentious trial and Jalali’s death sentence, declared imminent last week as Swedish court proceedings made international headlines. Iran’s judiciary spokesman declared on Tuesday that Jalali’s verdict was final. His family believes the cases are related.
The accusations in Sweden date back to 1988, after Iran’s then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini agreed to a UN-brokered ceasefire. Members of the Iranian opposition group Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, heavily armed by Saddam Hussein, crossed the Iranian border from Iraq in a surprise attack. Iran blunted its attack.
Mock trials of political prisoners began around this time, with defendants being asked to identify themselves. Those who responded “mujahideen” were sent to their deaths, according to a 1990 Amnesty International report. International rights groups estimate that as many as 5,000 people were executed.
Iran has tried to bury this dark chapter in history. But now sensitive memories are being dragged into the light. Former prisoners told the Swedish court that Nouri, a former Iranian judicial official, handed down death sentences, guided convicts to execution chambers and helped prosecutors collect the names of mujahideen sympathizers. Nouri denies his involvement.
A verdict is expected in July and, if convicted, Nouri, 61, could face life in prison. The case resonates in Tehran, where hardline former judicial chief Ebrahim Raisi was part of the commissions that issued execution warrants.
Iran is outraged and condemns the trial as “an unfair and illegal show trial”.
Iranian authorities have since detained another Swedish citizen, a tourist traveling through the country, the Swedish Foreign Ministry confirmed last week.
WHY DOES IRAN DETAIN FOREIGNERS?
Four decades ago, young Iranian revolutionaries stormed the US embassy and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. They were released in 1981, but Iran’s hostage-taking policy never ended, analysts say.
“It’s ebbs and flows, but this has been a notorious page in the Islamic Republic’s playbook since 1979,” said Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Iran generally detains foreign nationals as a means of gaining influence or something else from that other country.”
The tactic has exploded into public view as prisoner swaps gather steam. When Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers went into effect in 2016, four American captives were flown home from Iran. That same day, the Obama administration flew Iran $400 million in cash.
Most recently, this spring, two British nationals who had been imprisoned in Iran for more than five years were returned home after the UK paid off a decades-old debt to Iran.
Today there are at least four Americans, two Germans, two Austrians and two French citizens known to be detained in Iran.
A United Nations panel describes his imprisonment as part of “an emerging pattern involving the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of dual nationals.”
WHAT IS THE HISTORY OF EXECUTING PRISONERS IN IRAN?
Iran is one of the world’s top executioners. In March, the UN special rapporteur for Iran told the Human Rights Council that the number of executions in Iran rose to 280 last year, including at least three minors.
However, the execution of foreigners remains extremely rare. Iran is not publicly known to have executed a foreigner in the past two decades.
Dual nationals who have faced the death penalty in recent years, such as Iranian-Canadian Hamid Ghasemi and Iranian-American Amir Hekmati, have had their sentences commuted.
Last year, UN human rights experts warned that Jalali was facing harsh conditions and was “on the brink of death” as his health deteriorated rapidly in solitary confinement. His conviction, the UN says, stems from a confession extracted under torture after an unfair trial.
Deprived of sleep under bright lights, he awaits the day he will be taken away to be killed.
It’s a terror her family says they share, even 3,000 miles apart.
“It is torture. …she has completely taken over our lives,” Mehrannia said. “Because of the politics of other countries, we are suffering.”