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Iranian Journalist Flees Zarif's Entourage In Sweden, Seeks Asylum


Journalist Amir Tohid Fazel (left) with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif probably in Tehran. (file photo)

An Iranian journalist who accompanied Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif earlier this month on an official trip to Europe has fled the entourage and sought political asylum in Sweden.

But critics are questioning the credibility of Amir Tohid Fazel, accusing him of working with Iranian intelligence agents to help undermine critics of the Iranian clerical establishment.

Some suggest Fazel's asylum request may be an attempt by Iran's intelligence services to infiltrate "networks" from Iran's diaspora community in the West.

Sweden's Migration Agency will ultimately determine whether Fazel's asylum request has merit and whether he has the right to a residence permit in Sweden.

Fazel is a political editor with Iran's hard-line Mowj news agency.

He told Sweden's public television broadcaster that he was in Stockholm with Zarif's entourage on August 21 when he received a warning from a colleague that four plainclothes security agents had visited his office back in Tehran with a warrant for his arrest.

"My colleague warned me to tell my family," Fazel said in the August 26 interview. "He knew I wasn't in Iran. He told me to tell my family to leave home."

Fazel says he has been working in Iranian media for the past 20 years. He says he started to come under pressure from Iranian authorities after he published a list of government officials alleged to have dual nationalities.

"I had obtained a list through a lawmaker that showed that the country's senior managers -- including the president, his deputies and economic managers, and officials from different bodies -- have nationalities of countries that are considered by Iran's government as hostile enemies," Fazel said.

"Iran's government officially said that it would file a complaint over [the list]," Fazel said.

The list was reportedly given to Fazel by hard-line lawmaker Javad Karimi Ghodousi, a vocal critic of Iran's President Hassan Rohani and Foreign Minister Zarif.

'Hostages' As Political Pawns?

Iran does not recognize dual citizenship and has, in recent months, sentenced an increasing number of dual citizens to prison on espionage charges.

International rights groups and political analysts say they are "hostages" who are being used as political pawns amid increasing tensions with the West.

Fazel also said his wife has been fired from her job in Tehran since the publication of the list and that his child has faced difficulties while trying to apply for school. He did not elaborate.

Iran has a record of silencing journalists through intimidation, pressure, harassment, and lengthy jail terms.

The Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders says Iran has been one of the most repressive countries for journalists in the past 40 years.

The majority of those targeted have been reporters with pro-reform press. Citizen journalists and bloggers have also come under pressure.

Hard-line media, including the state-controlled television, have previously broadcast what they've called "confessions" by journalists and others.

Rights groups say such statements are commonly extracted from prisoners in Iran under duress, including torture.

Going Out 'For A Smoke'

Fazel said that he managed to flee from Zarif's entourage at a hotel in Stockholm on the morning of August 21 after the group had already visited Finland and Norway.

He said he told the Iranian security guards at the hotel that he was going outside to smoke a cigarette.

Instead, he says, he took a taxi to a nearby Swedish police station where he told them he wanted to seek asylum.

But other journalists are questioning Fazel's story. They are accusing him of having ties with security agents and helping to implement state repression -- including attempts to silence dissenting voices, pro-reform journalists, and Iranian political activists.

Journalist Mehdi Afsharnik says Fazel's reports were used against him by Iranian authorities who arrested him in 2011 after he'd produced a documentary on Iran's 1980-1988 war against Iraq.

"This interview and some of your other works were clearly building a case against me," Afsharnik said in an August 26 tweet that included a link to Fazel's interview with a hard-line lawmaker who claimed the documentary insulted victims and veterans of the war.

New York-based journalist Roozbeh Mirebrahimi said on Twitter that Fazel attended one of his interrogation sessions in Iran in 2004 when he'd been arrested and tortured.

Berlin-based journalist Ehsan Norouzi told RFE/RL that some employees of hard-line media work as "double agents" by posing as reporters while also serving the country's intelligence agencies.

"They are not decisionmakers, but they work in implementing policies by intelligence and security bodies," Norouzi told RFE/RL.

A Tehran-based journalist who previously worked at a moderate daily newspaper with Fazel accused him on Facebook of collaborating with attempts by authorities to silence dissenting voices.

'Strong Pressure'

Fazel declined to speak to RFE/RL, citing what he said was "strong pressure" against his family back in Tehran.

In his interview with Sweden's public television broadcaster, Fazel suggested he was being attacked by all sides as a result of factional disputes in Iranian politics.

He cited a report in the ultra-hard-line daily newspaper Kayhan, which accused Fazel of having ties with Iranian reformists.

"Kayhan is linking me to the reformist faction while the official government daily newspaper, Iran, says I'm affiliated with the conservative faction," Fazel said.

"Those who are familiar with Iran's media atmosphere understand," he said.

Fazel also dismissed accusations that he has collaborated with Iranian hard-liners, saying he is ready to face trial if anyone provides proof that he worked to target journalists or his "enemies."

"Everyone can decide about their own lives," Fazel said in a Twitter post just three days after he fled from Zarif's entourage. "No one knows what will happen in the future."

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