SSix years ago on New Years Day, an Iranian-Austrian IT businessman said goodbye to his wife and three children and took a Vienna-Tehran flight via Istanbul. Kamran Ghaderi was due to return five to six days later, but instead, on January 2, 2016, he was arrested and has now spent six years in Evin prison in Tehran.
In October 2016, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for spying for the benefit of a foreign country during a trial in which neither he nor his lawyer could utter more than two words. His conviction was based on a confession he gave under what his wife, Harika, called torture, believing she might be in danger. No written judgment has ever been rendered to his family.
“The effect on our three children – that’s the most painful part of this story,” Harika says in an interview. “I can’t comfort them. My daughters were nine and 12. They are now 15 and 18 years old. Our boy was two years old and now he’s eight. He does not remember his father and he would ask every day, “Where is my father?” I showed pictures with him when he was a baby, but he thought his father was dead. When he was four, he asked if his father was in prison.
“The older children were afraid of being arrested too. They are always careful to see if someone is following them.
Harika lost weight until she became “a skeleton”, and despite taking pills, she struggled to sleep for over two hours at a stretch.
On this poignant anniversary, she remembers all aspects of her disappearance. Before his visit, there was no reason to be suspicious. Ghaderi – who had left Iran in 1983 to study electrical engineering in Vienna – was not a political activist. He had made numerous business trips across the Middle East as an IT consultant and, in 2015, after the Iran nuclear deal, he was part of an official Austrian trade delegation to Tehran headed by the then Austrian President Heinz Fischer. Relations were there.
Normally, when traveling to Tehran, he stayed with his elderly mother. Harika said, “On the first day, I usually don’t call him because he has a lot of meetings, so I normally wait a day. This time when I spoke with his mother she said, “No he’s not here,” so it was a big shock.
“At first I thought he might have had a heart attack on the plane. It was not a direct flight but there was transit in Istanbul, so I called the Istanbul airport and asked if he could be in a hospital. The airport said they did not have such information. All I knew was that he was on the flight from Vienna. It was a Sunday and all the travel agencies were closed so I drove to the airport and said I needed to find out if he was on the flight from Istanbul or Tehran or not. They said they would not give information to a third party, and I was screaming and screaming. I was not myself.
“Then I thought a taxi driver had attacked him for his money – all kinds of things were on my mind, but I never thought he was arrested by the government. The next day, his brother went to Tehran airport and was told that he had been arrested and taken from there. We didn’t know who had arrested him, or for what. A month and a half after his arrest, the IRGC [the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of the Iranian armed forces] allowed him to call me, and he was allowed to say, ‘I’m alive. Take care of yourself and the children. I asked him what had happened and – he was crying – he said he was not allowed to tell me.
“Three months later, her mother got a call and was told she could visit her. This visit affected her so badly that she had to be taken to the hospital with high blood pressure. He had lost 16 kilos and he told her under pressure that he had signed two confessions.
Ghaderi finds it painful that her husband is still in prison, innocent and cut off from his family, except for a daily phone call, as the Austrian Foreign Ministry has hosted an Iranian government delegation in Vienna since April to discuss the future of nuclear power from the country. OK.
It may not be a coincidence that French, German, British and American binationals are held by Iran, their countries being among the signatories to the stalled nuclear deal, but the detention of Ghaderi and another binational Massud Mossaheb, the secretary of Austro-Iranian society, is a puzzle.
Ghaderi explains, “I realized this was a deal for Iran, so my question to the Austrian ministry was ‘why him, what do they want in return for Kamran?’ It may not be something that comes directly from Austria, but from the EU.
Either way, the Austrian government has taken the most gentle approach to its plight, insisting that quiet diplomacy is the best solution.
In an open letter to the ministry in April, the two families pleaded not to agree: “You do not publicly demand their release, nor do you publicly acknowledge the injustice, torture and illegality of their imprisonment. After years of relying on “silent diplomacy,” we interpret this as either a sign of resignation, a lack of commitment, or a unwillingness to consider alternative strategies.
Looking at the public comments of the Austrian Foreign Ministry, it is difficult to know that two of its citizens have been arbitrarily detained. Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg has only met Harika once, despite being, she says, very nice, but meetings between hostage families and the ministry are rare.
The greatest irony is that Iran is organizing a campaign asking Iranian citizens abroad to return to their country to work. Perhaps, looking at Ghaderi’s family, few members of the diaspora will rush for a flight back to Tehran.