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Supreme Lama of Kalmykia Telo Tulku Rinpoche (file photo)

The self-exiled supreme lama of Russia’s Republic of Kalmykia, who was the first religious leader in the country who publicly condemned Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, has announced his resignation.

Telo Tulku Rinpoche, also known as Erdni-Basan Ombadykov, issued a statement on January 29 saying that he was stepping down from the post of the Shajin-Lama, the leader of Kalmykia's Buddhists, after Russia added him to its registry of "foreign agents."

"In the situation that occurred, I consider it reasonable to pass on all the duties related to the position of the Shajin-Lama of the Republic of Kalmykia to the current leader of the centralized religious organization - the Kalmyk Central Buddhist Monastery of Geden Sheddup Choi Korling -- Tendzin Choidak (Mutul Ovyanov) and the administrator Yonten Lodoi (Sergei Kirishov)," Telo Tulku Rinpoche's statement said.

The statement came two days after Russia's Justice Ministry added Telo Tulku Rinpoche to its list of "foreign agents."

Telo Tulku Rinpoche had led Kalmykia's Buddhists since the early 1990s.

The Buddhist monk, who represented the Dalai Lama in the Russian Federation and holds a U.S. passport, fled Russia for Mongolia last fall, where he is helping thousands of Kalmyks who left Russia after Moscow launched its war against Ukraine in late February, 2022.

In early October, he became the first religious leader in the Russian Federation to condemn Moscow's ongoing unprovoked invasion in Ukraine.

Kalmyks in Russia's southwest and Buryats in Siberia are mostly Buddhist, Mongol-speaking ethnic groups. Tyvans are another mostly Buddhist indigenous people in Siberia, whose language is Turkic.

Meghdad Jebeli is a younger brother of the head of Iranian state TV, Peyman Jebeli.

In early 2020, lawyer Meghdad Jebelli took the drastic decision to leave Iran and seek asylum in the West.

Jebelli, whose elder brother is a key figure in the clerical regime, left his homeland just weeks after Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane over the capital, Tehran.

All 176 people on board, mostly Iranians and Canadians, were killed after the Kyiv-bound plane was hit by surface-to-air missiles on January 8, 2020. Among them was Jebelli’s nephew, a 29-year-old medical student.

After three days of denials and amid growing international pressure, the IRGC admitted to shooting down the plane “unintentionally” after misidentifying it as a threat amid heightened tensions with the United States. Tehran's delayed claim of responsibility for the shootdown sparked angry protests in Iran and increased distrust in the clerical regime.

The incident did not affect the loyalty of Jebelli’s eldest brother, Peyman Jebelli, the head of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), the state-run entity that runs all radio and TV broadcasting in the Islamic republic.

But for 39-year-old Meghdad Jebelli and his 43-year-old brother, Meisam, the tragedy was a turning point. The two siblings soon went into self-imposed exile in Canada.

The brothers have become critics of Iran’s clerical establishment and members of the Canada-based Association of Victims’ Families of Flight PS752 that is seeking justice for the victims of the tragedy.

In an interview with RFE/RL’s Radio Farda, Jebelli said cracks within his family emerged soon after he expressed his suspicions over the authorities’ initial denial.

“Within the first couple of days, due to the videos that emerged, it was evident to us that the plane had been hit. We said it. I remember we had fights and arguments [with my family members] during those days,” he said.

“They reacted harshly and said that we were being fooled by the [foreign] media,” he said, adding that his relatives took “the position of the establishment.”

'Tense Atmosphere'

In response, Jebelli accused his family members of “ignoring” what he described as the “murder” of his nephew.

“They [said] it’s a war after all and it is possible that someone gets [killed]. With such justifications, they were ignoring the murder of their own child,” he said.

Days before the tragedy, a U.S. drone strike had killed IRGC commander General Qasem Soleimani in neighboring Iraq. Hours before the Ukrainian plane was shot down, Iran had launched missile strikes on U.S. bases in Iraq to avenge Soleimani’s killing, and Tehran's air defenses were on high-alert in case of a U.S. retaliation, which never came.

Iranian officials later said several people had been detained and charged over the "disastrous mistake." No senior officials were dismissed and none resigned over the incident.

Jebelli said he "couldn't take it any longer" and decided to leave his homeland.

“I was married, and my life was separate [from my family]. Meisam used to sleep [at my parent’s home] at night but he changed his place of residence,” he said, adding that they left the country weeks later.

Even before the downing of the Ukrainian passenger plane, Jebelli said he had clashed with members of his family over their political differences. He said he participated in the mass street protests following the 2009 disputed presidential election despite opposition from his family.

“My mother found out about it, and it led to a tense atmosphere at home,” he recalled.

'Do Not Think You Are Safe'

Jebelli said he has returned twice to Iran since moving to Canada. During his second trip, he said, he was threatened over the phone by an individual who introduced himself as a friend of his brother, Peyman Jebelli.

He said the individual questioned him about his life in Canada and his visits to Iran.

“At the end, he said very seriously, ‘I am now telling you in a friendly way, watch your behavior, watch what you are doing. Do not think that you are safe [because] you are not in Iran,’” he said.

Jebelli said the individual reminded him of the fate of Iranian journalist Ruhollah Zam, the manager of the popular opposition Telegram channel Amad news who was executed by Iran in 2020 after being convicted of "corruption on Earth," a charge often leveled in cases involving espionage or attempts to overthrow the regime.

Zam had been living and working in exile in France before being arrested in 2019 under still unclear circumstances. According to media reports, the dissident was allegedly lured to Iraq by Iranian agents.

Jebelli said the phone call removed any doubts he had about his decision to move to Canada. “I became assured that I didn’t belong in Iran anymore,” he said.

Jebelli said he and his younger brother, Meisam, are not just seeking justice for those killed in the 2020 downing of the Ukrainian plane.

“I have always said that real justice will only be achieved when the perpetrators of the crimes of the past 44 years are punished," he said, referring to the clerics who came to power following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. “This can only happen with the overthrow of the Islamic regime.”

Peyman Jebelli has downplayed his brothers’ decision to leave Iran.

“Similar incidents have happened in the past,” he was quoted as saying by Iranian media. His comments came soon after TIME magazine interviewed Meisam Jebelli, who accused his elder sibling of being “in charge of the regime’s biggest propaganda machine” and lying “to my face.”

Peyman Jebelli (file photo)
Peyman Jebelli (file photo)

“I saw his comments,” Peyman Jebelli said. “I’m not sure to what extent it was of his own free will, but these incidents are not new.”

Peyman Jebelli was directly appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and is accountable to nobody but him. IRIB has come under criticism from rights activists and dissidents and has been accused of airing forced confessions and carrying political and religious propaganda.

Meghdad Jebelli said many Iranian families have become divided as more people turn against the regime.

Iran has been rocked by nationwide antiestablishment protests since the death of a woman soon after she was arrested by Iran’s morality police. The ongoing demonstrations are the biggest threat to the regime in years.

“In many families, children and young people participate in protests while telling their parents that they’re going to a party,” Jebelli said.

Written by Golnaz Esfandiari based on an interview conducted by Babak Ghafooriazar.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.


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