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Iranian activist and musician Homayoon Zarean (file photo)

After the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, Afghanistan became an unlikely refuge for a small number of dissidents from neighboring Iran.

The Western-backed Afghan government granted asylum to the Iranian nationals, who were allowed to live freely without the fear of political persecution.

But after the Taliban seized power in August 2021, some Iranian dissidents expressed fear that they could be targeted by the militant group. Those worries have been realized after the Taliban allegedly arrested two Iranian dissidents. Another was mysteriously killed earlier this year.

Homayoon Zarean, an Iranian activist and musician, and Kamal Khaki, an Iranian Kurdish activist, were arrested on unknown charges by the Taliban in the Afghan capital, Kabul, on May 14, according to close acquaintances.

A local acquaintance of Zarean, speaking to RFE/RL's Radio Azadi on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said Taliban special forces stormed the house where the two dissidents lived and took them away. He said their current whereabouts were unknown.

The acquaintance said Zarean and Khaki feared that the Taliban would deport them to Iran, where both faced the risk of arrest. He said Khaki had lived in Afghanistan since 2018, while Zarean moved there in 2014. "Zarean was worried that he could be swapped in a prisoner exchange with the Iranian government," he said.

Abdul Nafi Takoor, a spokesman for the Taliban's Interior Ministry, denied that the group had arrested the men.

In an interview with Radio Azadi in September, the 37-year-old Zarean said he had been arrested several times by Iranian authorities due to his opposition to the clerical establishment.

When Zarean moved to Afghanistan, he was temporarily detained on suspicion of being a spy. After his release, he lived in the western city of Herat, near the Iranian border, and then moved to Kabul. His aim was to apply for asylum in the West.

In the Afghan capital, Zarean offered free music, poetry, and theater classes.

But when the Taliban seized control of Kabul on August 15, Zarean said he was concerned that he would be detained and deported. He urged the United Nation to resettle him abroad. "I'm likely to face problems," he said in September. "I'm politically active and I'm a musician. [The Taliban] will surely announce their opposition to music and art."

Months later, his fears were realized. The Taliban banned music in a repeat of the group's brutal rule from 1996 to 2001, when it banned all forms of entertainment.

Samira Hamidi, Amnesty International's South Asia campaigner, said the alleged arrests of Zarean and Khaki follow a familiar pattern of arbitrary arrests under the Taliban.

"The Taliban arrest Afghans in the same way," she told RFE/RL. "They never provide any reasoning and information on why these arrests have taken place. In most circumstances, they deny these arrests and they only provide information when there is a lot of pressure on them."

"This is against international law," she added. "Seeking asylum for protection is a human right and, unfortunately, the Taliban have breached another level of human rights violations when we look at these cases in particular."

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Afghanistan told RFE/RL that it couldn't comment on individual cases for reasons of "confidentiality and data protection."

"Our offices remain accessible to all wishing to discuss particular concerns, but we do not reveal such contacts as a matter of principle," UNHCR said in response to an e-mail.

Third Assassination Attempt Successful?

The alleged arrests of Zarean and Khaki came after the killing of Saadi Khaledi, another Iranian dissident, in the northern province of Baghlan in January.

Saeed Khaledi in January 2022
Saeed Khaledi in January 2022

Khaledi, an Iranian-Kurdish activist, was gunned down by unidentified men. He was buried in Kabul, where he had lived for around two decades.

In a 2019 interview, Khaledi said he had been jailed in Iran for his political activism. He added that he had survived two assassination attempts in Kabul, which he blamed on the Iranian authorities.

Khaledi's family was reportedly pressured by the Taliban not to speak to the media about his death.

Since the Taliban regained power, it has tried to curry favor with Iran, its former foe. The two sides were on the verge of war in the 1990s.

Differences remain between Afghanistan's Sunni Taliban rulers and Iran's Shi'ite clerical regime. Tehran, like the rest of the international community, has yet to recognize the Taliban regime. Clashes have also erupted between Taliban fighters and Iranian security forces along the countries' 900-kilometer border.

But there has also been growing economic and political cooperation between the sides, which have both been hit by U.S. sanctions.

Security forces attack a protester in Tehran.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says the Iranian government has once again resorted to suppressing dissent and detaining protesters as it looks to quell discontent over rising prices and workers' rights and low wages.

The rights watchdog said in a statement on May 20 that Iranian authorities have arrested several prominent activists since the protests broke out two weeks ago, including a prominent sociologist and four labor rights defenders.

"The arrests of prominent members of civil society in Iran on baseless accusations of malicious foreign interference is another desperate attempt to silence support for growing popular social movements in the country," said Tara Sepehri Far, senior Iran researcher at HRW.

"Instead of looking to civil society for help in understanding and responding to social problems, Iran's government treats them as an inherent threat," she added.

Even though many Iranians are struggling to make ends meet amid a poor economy crushed by U.S. sanctions and years of mismanagement, President Ebrahim Raisi announced earlier this month a series of economic measures, including cutting subsidies and increasing the prices of several staples such as flour and cooking oil.

The move sparked protests in several cities across the country, with security forces arresting dozens of people. Reports say at least five demonstrators have died during the unrest.

Meanwhile, bus drivers and other employees of the Tehran Bus Company have held strikes since May 16, fueling a transportation crisis that has led the city to use police buses and drivers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, a powerful branch of the military, to keep routes open.

The bus employees, angered by the government's failure to deliver fully on a promised wage hike and undeterred by the arrest of their union leader as well as 12 strikers, have vowed to continue their protests until municipal authorities pay up.

The bus strike is widely seen as separate from the street protests over the country's worsening economic situation, some of whom have chanted for the end of the clerical regime.

But observers have suggested that Tehran is eager to prevent the two protests from merging, and have questioned the veracity of the city's announcement on May 17 that it was closing schools and government offices due to high air-pollution levels.

Authorities have also cut Internet services in many areas to try and keep the protests from spreading further.

"Iranian authorities have long sought to criminalize solidarity among members of civil society groups inside and outside the country," Sepehri Far said.

"The intention is to prevent accountability and scrutiny of state actions that civil society provides."

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