Ahwazi activists in Europe face spying charges in latest character assassination campaign against the Saudi Crown Prince

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On February 3, Danish and Dutch authorities arrested four Ahwazi opposition activists, Habib Jabor, Nasser Jabor, Yaqoub Hor Altostari, and Eissa Sawari, an Ahwazna TV presenter, without warning. The Danish activists were accused of spying for Saudi Arabia, whereas Mr. Sawari was charged with inciting terrorism on TV and with being connected to September 2018 attack on the IRGC parade in Iran. All four have been held in isolation, unable to communicate with anyone except their lawyers. Ahwazi Arabs comprise the majority of the population of the formerly independent and autonomus emirate, also known as Arabistan, which Reza Pahlavi forcibly annexed in 1925.  The Arab population has been denied its cultural rights and discriminated even under the Shah, but since the Islamic Revolution have faced disproportionate arrests and executions, defamatory claims of separatism and violence, economic and environmental devastation of the region, and illegal ethnic cleansing, depopulation, and displacement policies by the regime aimed at asserting dominion and control over the resource rich land. Ahwaz contains approximately 80% of oil in Iran.  Irina Tsukerman, a human rights lawyer based in New York, has been working with the Ahwazi community and activists on human rights issues for the past several years, and has worked to inform the public opinion about the abuses aimed against the Ahwazi Arab community, as well as on the Iran lobbies’ efforts to censor and shut down the voices of Ahwazi activists and community leaders in the press, and to delegitimize their perspectives. She has joined the effort to expose the baseless and fabricated allegations against the four Ahwazis arrested in Europe having witnessed previous Iranian attempts to assassinate these individuals, and having successfully helped defend another activist from similarly trumped up charges in Poland, brought about as a result of an Iran-issued red notice. She has further documented Iran’s recent role in successful character assassination campaigns aimed at weakening and discrediting the Saudi Crown Prince.  Ms. Tsukerman also asked Mr. Mordechai Tzivin, a renowned international criminal lawyer, to join her effort, which he did. Please read Ms. Tsukerman’s article below, documenting Iran’s efforts to use European legal systems in order to subvert and shut down peaceful Ahwazi dissent against Iranian abuses and aggression and to use Ahwazis as political hostage to once again turn the public opinion against Mohammed bin Salman.

Following the arrests of the four Ahwazi opposition activists in Denmark and the Netherlands last week, a strange silence descended upon European and international media concerning these cases and the fate of the Ahwazi human rights work and its TV station, Ahwazna, which was shut down by the Dutch government. After the initial uproar over the arrests of Habib Jabor, Nasser Jabor, and Yaqoub Hor Altostari in Denmark under section 108 of the Danish criminal code, and of Eissa Sawari, an Ahwazna TV anchor, under a provision related to incitement to terrorism, the public appears to have lost interest in these unusual charges for the time being.

The issue, however, directly affects the lives and reputation not only of the individuals in question, who may be facing up to six years in prison if convicted, but of their reputations and the reputation of the ASMLA and the movement.  The Ahwazi communities around the world have been left in shock by the sudden arrests of four leading figures, who themselves were narrowly rescued from assassination attempts by an Iran-backed terrorist in 2018. ASMLA had been a respected political rights-oriented organization which had had no legal issues in Denmark or elsewhere. A week before the arrests, ASMLA had organized a successful conference in Brussels, aimed at educating EU members about Iran’s human rights abuses and discrimination against its Ahwazi Arab population.

The sequence of events leading up to the current situation is as extraordinary as the sudden silence about the fate of four individuals, who are now being accused of passing intelligence information about Danish and other European individuals and corporate entities to Saudi Arabia, and in the case of the Ahwazna and its anchor, of being linked to the September, 2018 attack on the IRGC parade in Iran, which killed a number of participants. IRGC is a US-designated terrorist organization, and the leader of its terrorsm/espionage/subversion wing, the Al Quds Brigade, Qassem Soleimani, was recently liquidated in a US operation, in the course of allegedly planning further attack on US targets.

2018 was rife with Iranian attempted terrorist activity all over the world. Morocco terminated its relationship with Tehran a week before US withdrew from the JCPOA (the nuclear deal), following the discovery of an IRGC operative under diplomatic cover active in the Algiers embassy, who facilitated Hezbullah’s training and arming of the Polisario, an Algeria-backed separatist group involved in many criminal activities in the Sahara. At about the same time, a major diplomatic scandal broke out when a Vienna-based IRGC operative under diplomatic cover was implicated along with his Berlin counterparts in planning a terrorist attack against a huge Iranian opposition rally in Paris. In yet another incident, Iranian diplomats in Albania were expelled after the discovery of a planned terrorist attack against the Iranian opposition group MEK, based in that country. When Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, warned Denmark intelligence of a planned attack against Ahwazi opposition leaders who were surveilled for some time prior to the planned assassination, it became obvious that Iran’s ability to operate with impunity has gone far beyond its immediate Middle Eastern expansionist agenda and crosses international boundaries in ways that requires extensive international cooperation to track.

The incident raised outrage in EU political circles, as these operations were perceived as an unacceptable attack on Europe and the national sovereignty of the affected countries. At the same time as these developments unfolded, Iran sought to divert attention from its abuse of its own population by blaming an anonymous attack on the IRGC on “separatists”, its standard label for the Ahwazi human rights activists, accusing them of receiving backing from the US, Saudis, UAE, and Israel. All perpertrators of the attack were killed in action, but nevertheless Iran rounded up hundreds of activists, including women, accusing them without evidence, of involvement in the operation. Some were already in prisons for unrelated human rights activity when they were charged with involvement in the attack.

Brutal torture, forced confessions in front of the cameras, show trials in kangaroo courts, and baseless sentences, including potential executions for at least thirty Ahwazi prisoners, characterized the process by which Iran, after targeting Ahwazi exiles in Europe for assassination, tried to make itself out to be the victim in these events. THen-US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley dismissed the accusations made by Iran, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reached out to the Danish government and noted the targeting of the Ahwazis. Nevertheless, shortly before the next scheduled conference by ASMLA which was held in Copenhagen only two months following the disruption of the attack, the same three leaders were briefly arrested, after being accused of praising the attack on the IRGC, and their homes were searched without explanation, by the Danish security. They were released and no explanation was given.

In February 2019, ASMLA was to hold a gathering in Warsaw in the shadow of the US-led international summit focused on countering Iran’s malignant activities. That, however, was disrupted and canceled by another imminent threat of an assassination attempt against some of the administrators of the organization. Iran’s alliance with Turkish gangs, and local Polish criminals organized by a Moroccan fugitive working for Tehran nearly cost several more lives. The fugitive, who was responsible for a previous assassination of another opposition leader in the Netherlands, was eventually arrested in  UAE, and returned to the Netherlands. However, his gangs wreaked havoc in the West; including some verbal attacks and intimidation efforts against Ahwazi activists in Scotland.

Once again, Iran’s pattern of shifting the blame for its terrorism abroad continued when, unable to destroy the Ahwazi opposition physically, it tried to use the international law enforcement, to bring them back by sending out red notices and having a number of activists detained. Most were released relatively quickly, but Mr. Habib Chaabi was detained for three months. Finally, the judged ordered his release, and in his decision, the first such in Europe, cited Iran’s persecution of Ahwazi Arabs. Throughout 2019, Iran continued to use both its intelligence and European legal system to try to intimidate the opposition. In Sweden, an Iraqi national was arrested for spying on the Ahwazi community and sharing that information with the Iranian government.  Iranian lobbysts in various Western countries worked hard to paint Ahwazis wholecloth as dangerous terrorists and separatists – all while Iran’s IRGC was behind the attacks on Saudi, Emirati, and other oil tanks in the Strait of Hormuz, and its proxies launched attacks against Saudi ARAMCO sites and civilian targets, such as airports.

At the same time, Iran was consistent in blaming any internal incidents and protests, whether by Ahwazis or others, particularly non-Persian protests, on Saudi, American, or ISraeli sponsorship rather than on its own abuse of its civilian and vast expenditures on terrorism abroad, and on various wars, which left the country destitute. The reason for the absurd finger-pointing was less in internal propaganda value, since most Iranians no longer believe in the myth of the Great Satan pulling the strings of protests, but more to discredit these protests all over the world and to build on the perceptions of the three opponents of the regime’s hegemonic policies as dangerous, destabilizing,  manipulative meddlers in its sovereignty, and that the protests are inherently a sign of foreign involvement rather than legitimate opposition to fraudulent elections, high prices, poor economy, assorted abuses, and the quality of life in Iran. Iran replicated this pattern by blaming Ahwazis living abroad for their supposed involvement in the occasional mystery attacks on Iranian gas pipes, and other security incidents, in an effort to disrupt their involvement in peaceful education of the public about Iran’s stiffling of Arab culture and ethnic cleansing and deliberate depopulation of Ahwazi Arabs from their lands.

Simultaneously, Iran, alongside Qatari and Turkish media, took part in a virulent, malicious, and all encompassing character assassination campaign against the Saudi Crown Prince, focus on the baseless claims about Mohammed bin Salman’s supposed involvement in the death of the former spy and Qatar-backed operative Jamal Khashoggi. Iranian media breathlessly echoed Al Jazeera’s vast network filled with conspiracy theories; Iranian lobby groups, such as NIAC, aligned with Muslim Brotherhood front organizations, Western media outlets, leftist apparatchiks, and isolations to push for sanctions against the Crown Prince, and other punitive measures. Eventually, the strategy emerged of trying to portray Mohammed bin Salman as a tyrant for penchant in violating the national sovereignty of foreign states by supposedly surveilling, hunting down, and abducting dissidents, critics, and opposition – precisely what Iran has done for decades, to the point of assassinating opposition leaders from Iraq to Germany.

All of the conspiracy theories involving Mohammed bin Salman – from his supposed cybersecurity apparatus and hacking, as most recently alleged by Jeff Bezos and Agnes Callamard with no technical or other substantiation, to hit squads out to get dissidents (not one is known to have suffered as a result of these allegedly fearsome intel units – but many of my clients in Turkey, Malaysia, and other places where IRGC is welcomed have related to me incidents of being surveilled, approached, interrogated, or threatend by IRGC members) have been nothing more than projections of Iran’s own use of hard power to meddle in Western countries and to assert its domestic reign of terror abroad.

This latest attempt to bring down the Ahwazi movement, to stiffle the voices of pro-Western Arabs who are becoming increasingly more successful in opening the world’s eyes about Iran’s vast corruption and abuse of international trust and good will is painfully transparent. Moreover, this is just another effort to generate negative publicity for Saud Arabia’s Crown Prince, who has had to put up with a great deal of vitriol from all directions due to the Khashoggi obsession by the character assassin, in an attempt to distract him from successful implementation of Vision2030, his leading role in defense and economic integration of the region, his strong opposition to Iran’s creeping hegemony and the Muslim Brotherhood’s expanding ideological tentacles in Western institutions, and from shaping Saudi Arabia into a scientific and cultural powerhouse, which Iran, despite historic achievement, cannot possibly rival even with all its dirty business deal, due to its unhinged corruption and complete disinterest in the lives of its own citizens. There is no doubt that Iran has tried, once again, to use WEstern institutions, to fulfill its agenda. Spy allegations are rare in Denmark and the Netherlands, and for that reason, attracted a great deal of attention from the law enforcement and the public.

The arrested activists were thrown into isolation – surely a traumatic and disconcerting experience after everything they have already gone through – , denied full access’s to state’s alleged evidence (all recovered from their homes), and charged with crimes that are sure to arouse extreme scrutiny – spying for the controversial Saudis, being linked to the September attacks on the IRGC, and using the main outlet of the Ahwazi community to incite violent riots and terrorist attacks in Iran (in reality, Ahwazna only calls for peaceful rallies in opposition to the regime’s policies). Iran has once again manipulated the peculiarities of a Western legal system to its advantage. Denmark’s legal system is predicated on the presumption that the government is correct in evaluating evidence and making charging decisions and decisions whether to isolate defendants; lawyers representing individuals in such circumstances cannot engage in their own investigations – they can only deliver potentially exculpatory evidence to the police for evaluation.

For over a year since the recovery of alleged evidence, no exculpatory witnesses from the Ahwazi community were ever contacted to help clarify and evaluate the information supposedly derived from the documentation. Now, the defendants, none of whom necessarily understand the system, and some of whom have limited language skills, are isolated from the world and in full custody of the system, left alone only with lawyers who themselves have no power to search for additional evidence to help the case or to find witnesseses. As a result, defendants are left in a helpless position entirely dependent on whatever information the governments already possess, unless such evidence emerges by some miracle externally. This situation has been carefully calculated for maximum damage, as the arrested activists could be subject to pressure to accept a guilty plea or left with no recourse in self-defense due to the fact that the government is the sole gatherer and arbiter of evidence in this matter.  Who else but Iran benefits from such circumstances, playing on the interest of the members in legal system in showing strength on national security system and cracking down on supposed foreign meddling?

The statute in Denmark (Criminal Code 108), for instance,  is fairly broad and encompasses intelligence gathering, any sort of assistance to foreign intelligence, or even illegal lobbying efforts on behalf of a foreign intelligence. Thanks to Iran’s suggestive interference and disinformation efforts, Ahwazis are being painted to be stooges of Saudi Arabia, rather than independent activists, and any admission of guilt or conviction will greenlight a political campaign against Saudi Arabia and likely diplomatic and political consequences. European countries have long since benefited from business relations with Iran; however, to understand the current situation, one must see that the calculus here is complex and diverse.

Even Iran cannot directly command Denmark’s or Netherlands’ judiciaries; rather, a clever manipulator can inform the police, playing on cultural differences and misunderstandings, then, with access to the proper channesl, Iranian cultural “experts” can shape the interpretation of evidence being gathered, and suggest witnesses to contact or to avoid – not because the legal system is necessarily hopelessly corrupt, but because successful lobbies can embed themselves and take advantage of natural vulnerabilities in any systems, while the victims of oppression, terror, and assassination attempts get to suffer once again in their country of refuge. For Iran, the Ahwazis are nothing more than political hostages. Instead of demanding political ransoms from governments, they are trying to use the legal systems to extract false confessions or verdicts and to intimidate Saudis. USing trumped up national security charges is Iran’s favorite way of silencing dissent.

Ahwazis are a serious obstacle to Iranian information control in the West, especially in the past two years, but Saudis are a force to reckon with, and are an economically powerful countries that is looking to build its own defense industry. Iran, on the other hand, has to rely on asymmetrical warfare due to the inherently subversive strategy at the center of its Khomeinist ideology.  Iran cannot become a dominating force without eliminating Saudi Arabia’s leading role in the region, and Mohammed bin Salman is the one who stands more than anyone in the way. It is quite obvious that this operation has been set up to get at him and to weaken him in every possible way: by making him a suspect of major international investigations, by disrupting Europe’s relations with the Kingdom, and by bringing down overwhelmingly bad publicity and embarrassment in an effort to isolate him externally and to make him a liability at home, so that he is displaced or otherwise diminished. For that reason, Saudis should not ignore this developing story, but rather work to bring truthful and accurate information to the public eye. European judiciaries should be informed about the political context, and should receive information and advice from informed and objective parties, not just self-interested pro-Iranian agents.

Acerca de Irina Tsukerman

Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.

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