Iranian could face death penalty for ‘spying’

More than 198,000 people have signed a petition in support of Ahmadreza Djalali

February 8, 2017
Source: Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

A scientist at a Belgian university is facing execution in Iran on suspicion of being a spy.

Ahmadreza Djalali, an Iranian national and professor of disaster medicine at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), was arrested in April 2016 while visiting family in the country.

The father-of-two, who is also a professor at Amedeo Avogadro University of Eastern Piedmont, in northern Italy, has not been given a trial or seen a lawyer since his detention, VUB said on its website on 8 February.

“A scientist performing important humanitarian work, gets sentenced without public trial and is looking at the death penalty,” said Caroline Pauwels, the university’s rector.

“This is an outrageous violation of universal human rights, against which we should react decisively,” she added.

VUB has only just released news of Dr Djalali’s situation because his family believed speaking out would worsen his situation. It initially announced on 3 February that Dr Djalali had been sentence to death and was "scheduled to be executed in two weeks", but has now amended its statement to say he "could be sentenced" to death.

It follows a statement by Amnesty International on 7 Feburary, which said Dr Djalali had been "threatened" with the death penalty at a hearing on 31 January.

"He was taken before Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran, without his lawyer present, where the presiding judge told him that he was accused of “espionage” and could face the death penalty," said the Amnesty statement, which calls for "urgent action" to help Dr Djalali.

The lawyer he has appointed told Amnesty International that the authorities have yet to issue an indictment and schedule a trial, the human rights group added.

By 6 February, more than 65,000 people had signed a petition calling for the release of the 45-year-old scientist. By 8 February, that figure had risen to more than 181,000.

Dr Djalali, who studied medicine at the University of Tabriz in Iran and obtained a PhD in disaster medicine at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, has published 46 scientific articles in internationally respected titles, the petition says.

He is currently on hunger strike, having spent the first seven months of his detention in solitary confinement.

Dr Djalali has only been allowed to speak to his family for two minutes every two weeks, his petition says.

His family says Dr Djalali was forced to sign a confession but its content is unknown. The charges against him are also unclear, but are believed to relate to his international contacts from his work at Eastern Piedmont’s Research Center in Emergency and Disaster Medicine.

“We don't believe he did anything wrong. Let him go. Let him do his work. We need him,” Ives Hubloue, head of the VUB's Research Group on Emergency and Disaster Medicine, told Science.

“He's not interested in politics. We don't believe he would do anything at all (against the Iranian government).”

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