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The case of Jamshid Sharmahd, who faces the death penalty in Iran

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Jamshid Sharmahd is a California resident, a German Iranian citizen and critic of the Iranian regime. Two years ago, he was kidnapped and forcibly taken to Iran, where he stood trial in proceedings Amnesty International deemed grossly unfair on a slew of charges that he denies. Now he may be killed. Human rights groups say his case highlights a trend of growing persecution of dissidents. Hadi Ghaemi of the Center for Human Rights in Iran says the Iranian authorities are trying to send a message.

HADI GHAEMI: It's a message both to the domestic audience and the diaspora that we have you under control, and we're willing to go as far as kidnapping people.

FADEL: Two hundred and fifty-one people have been executed this year, more than in all of 2021. Iranian authorities say Sharmahd is a leader in the Kingdom Assembly of Iran, people they deem terrorists. The dissident group is not listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S., and Sharmahd is a software engineer and writer who runs a website for the group. His daughter, Gazelle Sharmahd, says his only crime was allowing space for dissidents to speak freely. She says they've been worried for a long time that the Iranian regime would come after her father ever since they got a call at their California home 14 years ago.

GAZELLE SHARMAHD: We were called by the police and the authorities here, and they said that my dad's life was in danger and that they knew where he was. So that's how we found out that the regime, the Islamic regime, wanted to assassinate him here. And later, of course, we found out that a regime agent was sent over here with a plan to hire somebody to assassinate my dad. And thankfully, the whole plan was foiled, and my dad survived. But it was not the only time that they tried to kill my dad. So for security reasons, the authorities here told him he should not leave the country because they can protect him here; they cannot protect him anywhere else in the world.

FADEL: So he stopped doing business abroad, where the majority of his contracts as a software engineer had been. But at 65, it was hard to find new work.

SHARMAHD: We were living off of our savings. In 2020, he got a new company in India, and the trip that he made in the beginning of 2020 with my brother was to go to India and back to get a new contract for his company. Unfortunately, as we all know, the pandemic happened. So as soon as my brother and my dad placed foot into India, they closed their borders down, and my dad and my brother were stuck there overseas for four months. And my brother was there with my dad because my dad has advanced-stage Parkinson's disease. And unfortunately, when they were trying to get back, my dad, who has a special visa in the U.S., had problems being able to return back to us.

FADEL: So he stayed in Germany for a while before booking a flight back to India to try to get more work. But his flight from Frankfurt stopped in Dubai, where his connection was canceled, and he got stuck.

SHARMAHD: So he called my mother, and my mother was very scared when she heard that he was in Dubai because he wasn't supposed to be so close to Iran, given the history of them trying to assassinate him. So he tried to calm her down, said, it's just - I'm just waiting for a connection flight. Don't worry. And he gave her his Google tracker, his Google location sharing device, and said, see; you can always see me. That was on July 28, 2020, and that was the last time that my mom was able to see my dad.

On August 1, we saw on the internet that the Islamic regime had published a video of my dad blindfolded with a swollen face, forced to make confessions about stuff that he has nothing to do with, that he never did. And that was the moment where we realized they kidnapped my dad.

FADEL: Now, they put your father on trial in Iran, charged him with corruption on Earth, accused him of masterminding a 2008 bombing. And the trial was described by Amnesty International as grossly unfair. Can you tell us about that process and what you were going through as you were watching your father go on trial?

SHARMAHD: We don't have any contact with him. In the last 1 1/2 years, I wasn't allowed to talk to my dad at all. My mother was able to talk to him twice in 12 months for a few minutes. That is one part of their torture, that they break off all the contact with the outside world. So all of the information that we have is from very, very little phone calls and speaking with the regime lawyers and, of course, the propaganda press that's going on over there.

The system that they've built up is that they bring up fabricated charges against dissidents. In my dad's case, they have been - mentioned more than dozens of charges, all involving some sort of terrorist bombing, outrageous things that have nothing to do with what he does. And now they have taken, of course, my dad. There is no defense. There is no lawyer. He has no connection to us. And the forced confessions that they got out of him, all of this has happened while he was being tortured.

FADEL: Yeah.

SHARMAHD: He has been in solitary confinement for 733 days, 733 days in which he hasn't seen a human soul.

FADEL: How has your life, your family's life changed since your father's kidnapping?

SHARMAHD: I was working in the COVID ICU. I'm a nurse over here. And I was pregnant at the time. I was five months pregnant. And I thought...

FADEL: Oh, my gosh.

SHARMAHD: ...The most horrible thing that could happen to me would be getting infected with COVID while I'm pregnant and losing my child. But on that day when I found out that my dad was kidnapped, I found a whole new nightmare to worry about, and COVID was the least of my problems at that time. And my daughter was born. She's 1 1/2 years old now. And my dad has not seen her. He hasn't seen his first grandkid. It is hard, to say the very least.

FADEL: Are you getting any help from governments?

SHARMAHD: We want to see more engagement from Washington and from Germany because two years have passed and nothing has changed in my dad's case. He still can't call us. He's still being tortured. And the death penalty is a real thing. We can lose my dad any time. His next show trial is coming up, and they're supposed to give him the death sentence at that time. Once this happens, we don't know how many days he would have left.

FADEL: Gazelle Sharmahd's father is imprisoned in Iran, facing the death penalty if nothing is done to help him. Thank you so much for your time.

SHARMAHD: Thank you so much for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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