Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Unjust Imprisonment of Kamiar and Arash Alaei




This article or letter, what have you, is a document written to shed some light about the personalities of Arash and Kamiar Alaei, their work, and the events surrounding their arrest in June of 2008. On December 31st, 2008 Kamiar and Arash were charged with conspiracy to overthrow the Iranian government by way of a "velvet revolution" under article 508 of the Islamic Republic of Iran's Penal Code. I fear that this comes as too little too late, but I trust that justice will prevail in the end. Everything I have written is either from my own direct encounters with Arash and Kamiar or narrations recounted to me by our mutual friends. For objectivities sake I have noted which stories are my own and which are not.

My relationship with Kamiar Alaei began over two years ago in a series of emails and telephone conversations. Kamiar was then a student at Harvard University's School of Public Health, having completed his medical education in Iran many years before. For several years he and his brother Arash had been organizing summer public health research expeditions to Iran for US students. It was a student exchange program of sorts aimed at increasing awareness about the epidemiological problems and the work being done in Iran, to establish academic and research ties between Iran and the West as well as to spread goodwill between the two, and also to train young future professionals. In the summer of 2007 they were planning on hosting a group again, this time under the umbrella of unofficial organization called REACH. With my Masters program coming to an end, a dear friend and mentor of mine forwarded me an article about the REACH Program and the Alaeis. Ironically, she did not know how close she had actually come to meeting them for she had attended the 2006 World AIDS Conference in Toronto just as they had. By then Kamiar and Arash were emerging as the faces of the war on HIV/AIDS and substance abuse in Iran; two in a long list of many working in this field. Along with many other physicians they coauthored "Iran's National and International Strategic Plans for the Control of HIV/IDU/TB" as well as helping institute the Triangular clinic model of combating HIV, STDs, and substance abuse. He and his brother were an accomplished physician tag team duo, Arash having completed a year of health management studies as an AIDS fellow in the US courtesy of funding from the Ford Foundation and Kamiar pursuing his Masters in Public Health, although I knew none of this then.

Anyway, in the spring of 2007, REACH served as my introduction to Kamiar. Around graduation I was still having doubts about actually making the trip to Iran when Kamiar called. I was at a junction in my life. I knew that I wanted to study to become a doctor but at the same time, since moving to the US at the age of two, I had never had the opportunity to truly experience the land of my birth. My first trip back to Iran was in 2002 and in every trip back I felt like a tourist. I was indecisive. Gradually, Kamiar convinced me that there was indeed a way to have "khoda and khorma" (both) as the Persian saying goes. Kamiar even secured funding for my travel costs from an anonymous donor to whom I will be forever thankful and indebted to for the journey of my life. Little did I know that six months later those phone conversations and emails between Kamiar and I would pick up right where they left off, but for the moment I was packing my bags and travelling to Iran. A group of nine other students and I made the twenty plus hour airborne trek that summer. I was the last to get there, arriving in late July. In Iran I met up with the rest of the US students. Arash introduced us to a number of native Iranian students. These were Arash's friends, all in college majoring in everything from medicine, to dentistry, to management. They had a passion to serve their people and country but also a thirst to experience the greater world beyond Iran. We formed bonds of friends, bound by the most altruistic of values, the desire to learn and serve, and Kamiar and Arash were the glue. If you are familiar with Muslim history then you know about the story of the Ansar (Friends or Helpers) in Madineh who served as aids and kinsman to the Muhajerin (the Emigrants) from Mecca who were new and unfamiliar to the Ansar's land. Such was our friendship. They befriended us making our transition easier and aiding us in joint research ventures. How sad that after the imprisonment of Kamiar and Arash they too became martyrs, enduring fear and hardship. In the late Fall of'08/Winter of '09 several of our Iranian friends were taken by Iranian intelligence agents for interrogation, students, mere kids whose only crime had been volunteering in drug rehab clinics, conducting surveys, hosting foreign students, and wanting to help their country.
Back to Iran, throughout the summer of 2007 we had weekly meetings, Arash, the Iranian students, and the US students. Our gather place was the "ghahve khaneye Niavaran" (the Niavaran Coffee shop) and we would sit and discuss everything from the progress of our research, to brainstorming ideas about the future of our movement, to what hang out joints or restaurant we would hit up next. I say movement because like all young idealists we wanted to change the world and the direction we wanted to take was that of student exchange. Our goal was to start up an NGO that we would later call SAHAR (The Student Alliance for Health Advocacy and Research), but that comes later.
In August and September, I accompanied Arash on his regular visits to Khaneyeh Khorshid. Arash's frankness had a tendency of getting him into trouble and I don't doubt that it had a role in his final imprisonment. Earlier that year, Iran announced that it had developed a new herbal HIV drug, IMOD (Immuno-Modulator Drug). It was touted as a breakthrough cure, a drug that could weaken the virus and strengthen the immune system, but Arash believed otherwise. Somehow, for some reason, valid I am sure, he believed IMOD was worthless. I never talked to him about it, but a friend informed me that at one time his visits to Khaneyeh Khorshid had not been so frequent. Arash had been a faculty member at Shahid Beheshti Unversity of Medical Sciences; that is until he wrote an article denouncing IMOD. The article wound him in court accused of libel, finally costing him his position. Just as a side note we see that today there is not a word about IMOD in HIV/AIDS arena. In fact I haven't seen any mention of the word IMOD for over a year.

So here he was, traveling to Shush everyday to attend to his female patients. Khaneyeh Khorshid is a one of its kind Drug rehab Drop in Center (DIC), a woman exclusive center dedicated to the treatment and rehabilitation substance abusers. This is a place where homeless women can seek refuge from the hardships of poverty, joblessness, and lack of support if only for a short while. Arash worked without pay. He went to Khaneyeh Khorshid every morning to see patients, playing with their beautiful children. He is a kind soul who would lift the spirits of the clinic upon entering, joking with the clinic staff in his Kermanshah accent. Not once did he complain about his own circumstances, and if he did complain it was about issues in society that only his anthropological eye could pick up on. He complained for the sake of his people not for the sake of complaining but for the sake of finding solutions for his patients. Otherwise Arash always joked and kept a light spirit.


I remember one morning we were driving to Shush and he started telling a story. Naturally, Arash had many stories. He recounted how one day back during his instructing days, he was trying to explain the meaning of the Hippocratic Oath to his medical students. "The oath obliges you to treat any and every patient, regardless of who it is. Whether the patient is Saddam Hussein or Ayatollah Khamenei, your duty is to treat," he told them quite innocently, but to make such an ambiguous public statement referring to Saddam and Ayatollah Khamenei in the same sentence, without making apparent whether used as comparison or contrast is tantamount to asking for trouble. Such frank slips were not uncommon from Arash. I think it was the same day that on our way back from Shush we stopped off at the Velenjak gas station off the Chamran freeway. He gassed up and returned to the car, and we started talking about Evin prison not far away. "If I ever get thrown in jail it will be a good opportunity to write my autobiography. Maybe I can get a couple of chapters in before getting out." Then he continued more seriously, "But really, there are a lot of things I could do in there."

I have tearfully thought about those words time and time again over the course of this past year. He had called it even if in joking. I didn't know what prison work he was referring to until this past summer when I made my first trip back since January of 2008. A friend told me that after the first six months of solitary confinement Kamiar and Arash were moved into the general prison population. She continued that since the move the two brothers have started Anti Tobacco and drug rehab programs in Evin. Another one of my friends employed in a Tehran hospital told me in July that not long before Arash had called the hospital.

"He actually called," I asked, "but how?"

"Apparently, he and Kamiar get one five minute call per day," he explained, pausing before turning to me with a grin, "But you know these guys just won't give up. Arash called asking for the deputy director. He said he has been collecting some data that he wants to talk about."

Are these the actions of traitors?

I met Kamiar in person just before leaving Iran in January of 2008. He had come to visit his family, flying back with Arash after having attended conferences such as the Aspen Health Institute during the Fall of 2007 and conducting interviews and presentations about Iran and HIV/AIDS awareness. He was not at all like I expected, similar yet simultaneously very different from Arash, a quieter, more thoughtful, and tamer version I want to say. It matched the soft spoken boyish voice that I had first heard when talking to him over the phone eight months earlier. I met the brothers at Atieh Hospital. Arash had recently started working there, and I went to report my work and bid them farewell. It was the last time I would see either brother in person.

My conversations with Kamiar, however, did not end by any means. After returning we talked and talked often, not just the two of us but five of the other US Students who I had met in Iran the prior summer. All throughout the Winter and Spring of '08 we had biweekly meetings to discuss our brain child, SAHAR. The US students, like me, were of Iranian descent raised in the US but carrying a passion for their country of ancestry. Each of us had had a memorable, life changing experience in Iran. We had travelled to our motherlands for the first time not as tourists but as individuals trying to contribute to society. Our goal with SAHAR was to create an organization that would provide other young Iranian Americans the opportunity to do the same. Kamiar used to say that all that Iranians who travel back to Iran ever do is put on "lebasse polo khori" (their party suits) and go from one relatives house to the next, doing what Iranians do best, filling their stomachs. SAHAR was supposed to be an opportunity for avid young Iranian Americans to really experience Iran, with all of its beauties and problems. But not only Iranian Americans, we wanted to help send non-Iranians there to see the real faces of Iran, its land and people, free of all the politics and rhetoric. We still believe that engagement through people to people dialogue and scientific collaboration is the best deterrent to foreign intervention in Iran besides being comprehensively beneficial. We love our motherland that is Iran and we care for deeply for the people. The last thing any of us want is for the US to attack it. Similarly we have affection for the goodness of the people and the land that we have assimilated into and do not want to see it enter into another dead end war. I ask again, does this sound like the work of conspirators to a velvet revolution? These were our stated goals and at every turn we were completely transparent.

We worked hard and despite the short notice over thirty people applied to the SAHAR Program. After accepting eighteen, Kamiar and Arash worked on finding each of them mentors and collaborating research facilities in Iran. Private hospitals, national research centers, you name it; they had friends and connections everywhere. We had a policy of transparency and complete disclosure. We didn't want SAHAR and our work to be interpreted as anything but for what it was, goodwill, and really we had nothing to hide. I contacted the Iranians Interests Section in DC and informed them of SAHAR and our exchange program. I explained that our students would be working through official ties and that the goal was education and research. I sent copies of our proposal, mission statement, and vision. I talked to them about a couple of our applicants who were having difficulty obtaining travel documents. Throughout the conversations they were very kind; upon request I even provided them the names of all the students involved in organizing and planning to travel to Iran on behalf of SAHAR.

By then it was June of 2008 and I was on the phone with Kamiar almost daily. He would call me to talk about a student and we would discuss our progress with the logistics. Our relationship had turned into much more than just professional. Kamiar had become my older brother and friend. Sometimes I called just to talk about personal matters. I would call and he would be riding back from the University on his bicycle, huffing and puffing, asking how my MCAT studying was going. He would joke that it was time for me to get married and I would indicate that it was his, ten years my senior, turn first. Not long thereafter, Kamiar went to Iran to make preparations for the students. I spoke to him over the phone while he was in Iran. One of the other SAHAR Board members was visiting me and we took turns talking, reminiscing about the summer before. Everything seemed to be moving smoothly until tragedy struck a month later. In early July I heard that Kamiar and Arash had been detained. We were all shocked, frantic, not knowing what to do, the US students, Iran students, and me—it was totally out of the blue. .

One of the SAHAR Board Members who was in Iran that summer later related to me what he had learned; apparently some people had been having weekly meetings with Arash up to his detainment, interrogating him. Why? Maybe because Arash had interviewed on Voice of America in his latest trip abroad or perhaps because of the US State Department sponsored trip of Iranian doctors and academics, touring hospitals and research facilities. But why then were none of the others on that tour condemned? What brought this about and who exactly those people were, I don't know, but my friend told me that in one visit Arash made a snide comment, no surprise, and the next evening they came for him, followed by Kamiar the next morning.

In the subsequent months I heard tons of rumors about the Alaeis, accusations that I do not wish to repeat. Ashamedly, it cast a shadow of doubt upon them in my own eyes, me who has never seen anything from them but goodness. Ironically, none of the rumors even concern the political charges that have been made against them. It seems to me that the ludicrous gossip were designed to call into question Kamiar and Arash's integrity, an indirect justification for the injustice that has been done to them. Those who know them and their work also know that Kamiar and Arash were never political. Calling into question their reputation is an attempt to justify their unjust imprisonment and dissuade friends from speaking out by creating doubt through character assassination. At times I have convinced myself that attracting attention to them would only hurt their case, but these were only more excuses to justify my own fear and inactivity. I have done nothing for them. They have been brothers to me and I abandoned them. I fear that this is too little to late but maybe it can clarify a little about who the Alaeis are and the events surrounding their imprisonment. Kamiar and Arash have nothing but love for their people and their country, and all the false accusations in the world cannot change that. Kamiar and Arash, my deepest apologies to you and your family; I wish you a safe and speedy release. I hope that you can forgive me and all those who have remained silent.

Sincerely,

An Unworthy Friend



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