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'A Hidden Extradition': Iranian Murder Suspect Fights Deportation From Belarus

MINSK -- The bodies of the elderly woman and her 51-year-old son were found wrapped in blankets, decomposing in their home in southern Tehran. They had been stabbed to death, their corpses entombed in a closet sealed off with a makeshift wall, Iranian authorities say.

The grisly discovery in the fall of 2012 ended the search for the pair. But it marked the beginning of a family member's fight to avoid forcible return to Iran, where he says he could face torture or even execution for a double murder he denies committing.

Mehrdad Jamshidian, 52, who has lived in Belarus for more than two decades, has avoided extradition to Iran from his adopted country since 2012 to face charges of killing the two people found in the closet -- his mother and brother -- in an alleged dispute over his father's inheritance.

But despite the case's murky details and opposition from a UN rights committee, Belarus now appears set to expel the father of three back to his homeland for an immigration infraction -- a move his supporters consider a "hidden extradition."

Jamshidian has spent the past eight months locked up in a Minsk detention facility, awaiting deportation from the last country in Europe to retain the death penalty to another that has been accused of carrying out "arbitrary executions."

Official documents have given conflicting timelines of the crime, including one that places Jamshidian in Belarus when his mother, Azam Naghash-Asl, and brother Ismail were said to have been killed. Jamshidian, meanwhile, claims he is being targeted due to his deceased brother's purported opposition to Iran's government, though an Interpol commission said it was unable to determine an overriding political motive in the case.

Iran, which rights watchdogs have long accused of unfair trials and forced confessions, denies that Jamshidian faces political persecution, and says he has nothing to fear if he can demonstrate his innocence in court.

The UN Human Rights Committee, however, concluded that Belarus would violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by expelling Jamshidian to Iran and exposing him to possible torture and arbitrary execution.

Belarus appears to be shrugging off that November 2017 conclusion. The Interior Ministry last month ordered Jamshidian to be deported, citing his lack of valid identity documents after his Iranian passport expired in 2016.

Mehrdad Jamshidian in December 2015
Mehrdad Jamshidian in December 2015

Jamshidian's family and rights groups are now fighting to prevent him from being handed over to Iran, where a UN report last year found a "pattern of physical or mental pressure applied upon prisoners to coerce confessions."

In a new report, Amnesty International said on April 10 that while the number of known judicial executions in Iran fell dramatically in 2018 due to a change in its drug laws, capital punishment remained "rife" in the country and was often "carried out after unfair trials."

"It is very disappointing for us that our homeland, Belarus, has sided with Iran in the matter of a man's fate and that of his family," Jamshidian's daughter Katsyaryna told RFE/RL's Belarus Service in March.

Missing Assurances, Evidence

Jamshidian's case highlights a question in cross-border law enforcement that arose more than three millennia ago: Under what circumstances can -- and should -- one government transfer individuals into the custody of another?

Protections for international fugitives date back to the oldest known extradition treaty on record, codified around 1259 B.C. in a peace deal between ancient Egypt and the neighboring Hittite Empire in what is now Turkey.

Men extradited under the agreement should not be killed, nor should their wives, children, or homes be "destroyed," according to the Treaty of Kadesh signed by Ramses II of Egypt and the Hittite king, Hattusilis III.

As transnational crime has grown in recent decades, the issue of protections for extradited fugitives has taken on greater urgency, with the modern human rights movement pushing to prevent expulsions to states where transferred individuals could be subjected to political persecution, torture, and other abuses.

In a landmark case, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in 1989 that by extraditing a German man to face capital murder charges in the United States, Britain would breach his right not to subjected to "torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" due to the psychological distress he would likely face while on death row.

Britain ultimately extradited the suspect, Jens Soering, after receiving U.S. assurances that he would not be executed. Soering was convicted of two murders and handed two life sentences.

Belarus -- whose authoritarian president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, last year described "political relations" with Tehran as "splendid" -- is not subject to ECHR jurisdiction.

But its laws do forbid the deportation of foreigners to countries where "they face the threat of torture," unless the individuals in question are deemed a "threat to national security" of Belarus or have been convicted of "grave" crimes.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka(left) and his Iranian counterpart, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, walk during their meeting in Minsk in May 2007.
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka(left) and his Iranian counterpart, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, walk during their meeting in Minsk in May 2007.

When Iran sought Jamshidian's extradition following his December 2012 arrest in Belarus on an Interpol red notice, Minsk demanded assurances that Iran would not prosecute him for another crime or transfer him to a third country without approval from Minsk.

In May 2013, Belarusian prosecutors rejected Iran's extradition request, citing Tehran's failure to provide these assurances and additional evidence of Jamshidian's alleged involvement in the murders, according to a copy of the rejection order seen by RFE/RL.

In the document, prosecutors say they requested the additional documents because the initial evidence submitted by Iran "does not fully demonstrate the facts of the case."

'Hidden Extradition'

The rejection of Iran's extradition bid, however, would provide little relief for Jamshidian, who moved to Belarus in 1993 and married his longtime partner and mother of his now adult children, Alena, in 2011.

In the same May 2013 order, prosecutors declared Jamshidian's presence in Belarus a "threat to the rights and legal interests" of the country's citizens and ordered police to open a case into his possible deportation.

While the authorities decided to deport Jamshidian the following December, the order was never carried out as he tried -- and failed -- to obtain political asylum in Belarus. He was released on humanitarian grounds in 2015 after his teenage son was diagnosed with brain cancer.

But his Iranian passport expired the following year, and he was arrested again in June 2018, this time for being present in Belarus without a passport, residence permit, or refugee document.

Nasta Loyka, an activist with the Minsk-based rights group Human Constanta, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service following his arrest last year that Jamshidian did not try to renew his Iranian passport due to the "difficulties" he might have faced at the Iranian Embassy in Minsk.

Jamshidian has been incarcerated in a Minsk detention facility ever since, and on March 15, the Interior Ministry's citizenship and migration department ordered his deportation due to his illegal status -- a move his other daughter, Dyyana, called "a disaster."

"People in the department sincerely sympathized but said they had to carry out the decision," Dyyana told RFE/RL's Belarus Service on the day of the order. "Now our last hope is the mercy of the Belarusian court. After all, Belarus is still a European country that should respect people's rights and not hand over a person to die."

Five days later, a Minsk court rejected an appeal challenging the deportation, saying it had been filed too late.

Enira Branitskaya, an activist with Human Constanta, told RFE/RL that his deportation would be tantamount to an extradition -- but without the guarantees and assurances of that process.

"This is a hidden extradition," Branitskaya said.

Murky Timeline

The bodies of Jamshidian's mother and brother were discovered in the closet in their Tehran apartment on November 21, 2012, according to materials in his extradition case. How long they may have lay there remains unclear.

Official documents related to the case provide conflicting accounts about when they were killed -- including one that would appear to give Jamshidian an unassailable alibi.

In the May 2013 order rejecting Tehran's extradition request, Belarusian prosecutors say Iran accused Jamshidian of committing the murders "in September 2012." Travel records reviewed by RFE/RL, however, show that Jamshidian had left for Belarus on August 25 of that year after a four-month stay in Iran -- meaning he would have been out of the country at the time of the crime.

Purportedly notarized statements from Jamshidian's niece -- the daughter of his late brother -- and another brother also said Tehran police and prosecutors determined that the killings occurred in September 2012, according to copies of the documents seen by RFE/RL.

RFE/RL was unable to independently verify the authenticity of these letters, which purport to show that the niece and brother believe Jamshidian is innocent but that they would forgive him if he were found guilty. Under the Qisas law in Iran, a victim's family can offer forgiveness and spare the perpetrator from punishment.

After a Belarusian opposition party noted that Tehran's timeline appeared to show Jamshidian was not in Iran when the victims died, the Iranian Embassy in Minsk said in an October 2016 letter that the accused or his lawyer should present "substantiated facts proving his alibi" to the "relevant court."

Nearly two years later, an Interpol commission explained in a letter to Jamshidian's lawyer that, due to human rights concerns, it had rejected Tehran's request to issue a red notice for his client's arrest.

The letter cited Iran as acknowledging that Jamshidian left the country on August 25, 2012 -- but indicating a different time frame for the crime: July 2012, when he was still in Iran.

'Inherent Right To Life'

Despite Jamshidian's insistence that he had left Iran by the time his mother and brother died, the Commission for the Control of Interpol's Files -- which handles challenges to Interpol red notices and alerts -- found that Iran had provided "sufficient" information "highlighting the possible participation" of Jamshdian in the "alleged criminal acts."

The Interpol commission nonetheless rejected Iran's request to publish a red notice for Jamshidian's arrest, concluding that his extradition to Iran would expose him to "torture and serious violations of fundamental human rights."

The commission said evidence for Jamshidian's claim that the case against him is politically motivated was insufficient to outweigh the "ordinary-law elements" of the matter, though it called the "political context identified around this case" a "supplementary risk" for the fugitive.

Iran is one of the world's leading executioners.
Iran is one of the world's leading executioners.

Jamshidian claims Iran is targeting him due to his slain brother's purported activism in the Green Movement, which organized protests against alleged fraud in the 2009 presidential election and was subjected to a violent crackdown by the Iranian authorities.

Iran dismisses this claim and Jamshidian's contention that he will face persecution in Iran because he converted to Christianity in 2002. The Iranian Embassy in Minsk said in its 2016 letter that Jamshidian had freely visited Iran without incident in the years prior to the crime he is charged with.

The Interpol commission's decision leaned heavily on a November 2017 conclusion by the UN Human Rights Committee that Belarus would violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights -- specifically, its guarantee of the "inherent right to life" and statement that "no one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" -- if it were to expel Jamshidian to Iran.

'A Political Decision'

Jamshidian's family and Belarusian rights activists have held out hope that he might be deported somewhere other than his homeland. But Branitskaya of the Human Constanta rights group, which has advocated doggedly against Jamshidian's expulsion, said that Iran was the only country so far that has said it's willing to take him.

In the meantime, Jamshidian spends most of his time in isolation at the Minsk detention center where he is being held, according to Leanid Kulakov, an opposition activist who was jailed in the same facility in late February after being arrested for participating in an unsanctioned rally.

Kulakov told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that Jamshidian closely follows politics, was keen to get his hands on newspapers, and was "very happy" when the activist later managed to deliver some plastic silverware to him after Kulakov's release. During conversations between the two, Jamshidian continued to insist he had nothing to do with the deaths of his mother and brother, Kulakov said.

Attempts to reach Jamshidian's family for comment have been unsuccessful in recent weeks.

Branitskaya said the family had heard that both the Belarusian Foreign Ministry and Interior Ministry have submitted reports on Jamshidian's case to the administration of Lukashenka, the strongman president who has called for bolstering economic ties with Iran.

Neither ministry responded to requests for comment from RFE/RL, nor did Lukashenka's administration. Vital Naumchik, deputy head of the Interior Ministry's department on citizenship and immigration, declined to comment on the matter when contacted by RFE/RL's Belarus Service.

"He could be sent away at any moment. But there's an understanding now that it will be more of a political decision," Branitskaya said.

Carl Schreck reported from Prague. Aleh Hruzdzilovich reported from Minsk. With additional reporting by Golnaz Esfandiari in Prague and Hannah Kaviani of RFE/RL's Radio Farda
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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

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    Aleh Hruzdzilovich

    Aleh Hruzdzilovich is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Belarus Service.