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Iran’s Dark Side

How did an Iranian journalist’s escape from the authorities spark a nation-wide controversy?

October 31, 2005

How did an Iranian journalist's escape from the authorities spark a nation-wide controversy?

For 45 days, intelligence agent Saeed Emami said he and his boys did their best to track Sarkouhi down.

Although it was proved that Sarkouhi had handed in his departure slip and collected his foreign currency entitlement at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport, no one — least of all his wife — was able to confirm that he had arrived in Hamburg.

Finally, after 50 days, the mystery was cleared up. Sarkouhi turned up at Mehrabad and announced that he’d not been in Germany at all — but in Turkmenistan.

“And, all of a sudden,” gloated Saeed, “Reuters, the Associated Press and human rights groups like Middle East Watch and Amnesty International suddenly took back what they had said and went quiet.”

Here's another version of the same story. At 10:30 p.m., on November 2nd (the day before Sarkouhi was due to catch his flight to Hamburg), senior Intelligence Ministry official Mehrdad Alikhani rang Sarkouhi to inform him that he wanted to see him at the airport early the following morning, before the plane left.

A month and a half before, Alikhani had taken Sarkouhi in. Saeed had come up close enough for Sarkouhi to smell the kebab on his breath, and whispered, “We’re going to sacrifice you, to encourage the others.”

Why had Alikhani called him now, a day before he was due to fly to Hamburg?

He got to the airport at 4 a.m., and one of the boys took him to a room where Alikhani got him to fill out and sign an embarkation slip.

Alikhani took the embarkation slip, as well as Sarkouhi’s passport and his foreign currency entitlement form. The, they blindfolded him.

In another room, they removed the laminate from Sarkouhi’s passport photo, peeled off the photograph and replaced it with one that belonged to someone else.

Then they gave Sarkouhi’s passport to the other man. He drew the foreign currency that had been allocated to Sarkouhi and took the flight to Hamburg.

By that time, Sarkouhi was in one of those bland houses around the palace, whose secrets — and perhaps even existence — are revealed to few state agencies.

Later, they played him a recording they had taken of a telephone conversation between his wife in Hamburg and his brother in Tehran, after he failed to take the flight for Germany.

Sarkouhi heard his brother say that the immigration authorities in Tehran had confirmed his departure.

A couple of days later, they told him, “You’ve been recorded missing, but you’ve gone missing in Germany, because we can prove you left the country — and that you caught the flight to Germany.”

“We’re going to keep you here while we chat to you and, after we’ve finished chatting, we're going to kill you and bury you where you won’t be found.”

He signed everything they wanted him to sign, and he noticed that they dated the confessions to the previous occasion he had been arrested — the time he had met Saeed.

They got him to talk about the Pen Association, and about his sexual relations — about his mistress Parveen — and he wrote down whatever they told him to.

While the cameras rolled, they got him to say that he had spied for the Germans and that his wife was receiving a German government stipend on his behalf.

They got him to say that the Pen Association was being directed by Germany and that its goal was to undermine the Islamic Republic.

Why? Mykonos, of course! It was the name of the restaurant in Berlin where four Iranian Kurdish dissidents were killed in 1992.

At the time of Sarkouhi’s arrest, a German court was trying Iran’s leaders in absentia for ordering the murders. (The following year, Kubsch, the judge, would find them guilty of a “flagrant violation of international law.”)

It was an intolerable affront to the Islamic Republic, and Saeed, who loathed Germans, was coming up with ways of avenging the slight.

According to the plan, Saeed’s boys would get all they could from Sarkhouhi, kill him and broadcast his confessions. They would tell viewers that the recording had been made between September 10th and 12th— the previous occasion that Sarkouhi had been detained.

The public would be informed that the decision to allow Sarkouhi to flee had been an oversight. Sarkouhi’s disappearance in Germany would be attributed to the shame he felt as a traitor and philanderer.

Saeed and his boys would sit back while patriotic citizens denounced Sarkouhi’s treachery. Iran’s relations with Germany would deteriorate.

Something went wrong. German immigration didn’t confirm that Sarkouhi had entered the country. Without that confirmation, Saeed and the boys couldn’t kill him and broadcast his confessions.

It was very irritating. Saeed’s lads came up with the Turkmenistan tale and let him go.

After that, Sarkouhi was free, but he felt imprisoned. He couldn’t talk to the media. The local papers wouldn’t dare print what he alleged.

The foreign press was tainted. He sensed the ministry — listening, watching. It was only a matter of time before they tried again.

Sarkouhi wrote a letter, which began, “I was arrested on November 3rd, at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport, and I was imprisoned until December 20th in a secret prison attached to the Ministry of Intelligence.” Then, he described the events summarized above.

At the end, he wrote, “If someone should come into possession of this document after my arrest, they should make sure it reaches my wife three days after my arrest, or the day after my death, so that she can have it published.”

“If no one receives this, I am dead. In fact, I have been dead since November 3rd, 1996. I love my wife and my children dearly, and my life until November 3rd was an honorable one.”

He gave the letter to a friend. If he was arrested again, the friend was to ensure that the letter reached Hamburg.

Sure enough, they took him in and the letter got to Hamburg. The foreign radio stations read it out — and Saeed, the intelligence agent, realized that he had been outwitted.

The judiciary sent Sarkouhi to jail for a year — because his letter had contained “propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” Then, they freed him and he went to Germany.

In the summer of 1999, Saeed died as many of his subjects had died — away from prying eyes, after interrogation at the hands of agents from the Intelligence Ministry.

Copyright, Christopher de Bellaigue 2004.