Saeed Malekpour: only strong pressure will open the doors to freedom
By Olivia Ward, former bureau chief, correspondent and foreign affairs writer for the Toronto Star for more than two decades. She works as a documentary filmmaker with Shelley Saywell's Bishari film company.
Saeed Malekpour came to Canada in 2004, drawn by its promise of unspoiled nature, fresh air and open spaces to explore. But on Oct. 4, 2008, he was arrested, beaten, tortured and cast into the airless, dungeon-like cells of Iran’s Evin prison. Today marks his ninth year behind bars.
Malekpour was a Canadian permanent resident awaiting citizenship when an urgent call from his family brought him to Tehran to visit his dying father. A metallurgical engineer, he had been working in Victoria B.C.as a web programmer to put himself through a graduate degree he hoped would open up new employment opportunities. Instead, he was charged by the Iranian regime with managing a pornographic website at the instigation of western countries plotting to corrupt the morals of Iranians – a spurious charge that was supported by no evidence.
During his nine long, dark years in prison, he was sentenced to death twice and had his sentence commuted to life in prison. But in spite of evidence so flimsy that even the notoriously unjust Iranian justice system found the case insupportable, he has not been released. He was denied even a furlough from prison that is often granted to prisoners who pose no danger to the state.
“Saeed has been in prison for nine years now isolated from the outside world,” says his sister Maryam Malekpour, who is in Canada. “Being in solitary confinement for about five years while he was physically and mentally tortured will for sure have a long term effect.”
While Iran has released other Iranian-born prisoners with strong ties to Canada, who were also arrested on trumped-up charges, Malekpour had the bad fortune to be in the sights of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard, a massively wealthy and ultra-conservative institution that is a state within a state. He became a scapegoat at the onset of their campaign to crush the social media, which they feared would undermine their power base as a contentious election loomed.
Although the “green revolution”of 2009 -- spurred by social media -- was violently repressed and hard line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad returned to power, the more moderate President Hassan Rouhani has been elected twice since then. But there was no relief for Malekpour. His pleas for pardon or release were ignored and under a judicial system that denies him even legal representation he lives under threat of a renewed death sentence.
Meanwhile, Iran has gained a new foothold in the international community after its endorsement of a multi-country deal to curb its nuclear ambitions in exchange for easing of painful sanctions. The Trudeau government has begun negotiations for restoring diplomatic ties and reopening the Canadian embassy in Tehran, even while U.S. President Donald Trump condemns Iran and threatens to tear up the nuclear accord.
In this precarious time, Canada’s recognition would be of added benefit to Iran. But there should be no re-engagement without an agreement to release Saeed Malekpour. Nor should his status as a permanent resident stand in the way of a vigorous campaign to free him.
There is a new ray of hope, with a firmer line from Ottawa. According to an official familiar with the case, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has taken the lead by asking Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif directly for Malekpour’s release and making it clear that the government considers him a Canadian.
Since Rouhani won a landslide election victory last May, he has a strengthened mandate to act on Malekpour’s case. According to insiders, Malekpour’s usefulness as a scapegoat in the Revolutionary Guard Corps’s escalating cyber war has long since expired, and the regime has nothing to gain from holding him longer. Only the Guards appear opposed to his release, likely as part of their ongoing power struggle with Rouhani’s more moderate faction. But it is also in their interest not to antagonize Ottawa, as pressure continues to declare them a terrorist entity, making it difficult for Canadian businesses and financial institutions to deal with their lucrative enterprises without charges of violating sanctions.
The need to resolve Malekpour’s case is urgent. As he faces yet another year of bleak imprisonment, his sister says, he has developed multiple health problems – and has lost nearly a decade of his life. She urges Canadians to join an active letter-writing campaign to free her brother by sending post cards to their MPs.
But the most forceful push must come from Ottawa. Those who have been released from Iran’s jails say that only strong pressure will open the doors to his freedom. Freeland’s message to Zarif is an encouraging first move. Now Canada, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, must keep his case front and centre as negotiations unfold.
“We must not forget Saeed Malekpour,” says Payam Akhavan, professor of international law at McGill University and author of In Search of a Better World. “The Iranian government must understand that there is a price attached to such cruelty. Keeping an innocent man in prison for nine years only shows how insecure and paranoid the leadership is, and how unfit it is to be a legitimate member of the international community."