Journalists or terrorists?

The following article was published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website on 8 August 2007.

Two Kurdish political activists have been sentenced to death in Iran, and it’s not only the Tehran hardliners who have it in for them.

The BBC reported last week that “two dissident Iranian journalists” from the country’s Kurdish minority have been sentenced to death for being “enemies of God”. The story appears to be based largely on information supplied by Reporters without Borders (RSF).

As a journalist and human rights activist, Adnan Hassanpour wrote for a Kurdish News magazine, Asou (Horizon), which was banned in August 2005 during a crackdown by the Iranian culture ministry. Abdolvahed Boutimar is an environmentalist.

Following their arrest, Hassanpour and Boutimar were charged with “Moharebeh”, which is levelled against those who engage in armed resistance and espionage. The men were then tried by a revolutionary court, convicted and sentenced to hang. There are, however, few verifiable details in the public domain, and the Iranian legal system is not exactly known for its transparency.

The EU Presidency has called for Iran not to execute Hassanpour and Boutimar, and to ensure that the men are given a fair trial in accordance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. But while democratic governments condemn the recent spate of public executions in Iran, and call for the death sentence on Hassanpour and Boutimar to be revoked, others including Iranian reformers condemn them.

Exiled Iranian blogger and Comment is Free contributor Hossein Derakhshan (aka Hoder) claims that the RSF/BBC story is “false”, and that the condemned men are in fact members of the armed separatist group Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistanê (PJAK), said to be linked to the PKK in neighbouring Turkey. The PKK is classified as a terrorist group by US and EU authorities among others, though some might argue that the reality is a little more complex than simple government decrees would have us accept.

So who are we to believe? Pro-Kurdish organisations are campaigning vociferously on the men’s behalf, and insist that they are innocent of the charges. There has even been established a blog in Hassanpour’s name. The Iranian regime, on the other hand, claims the men are PJAK fighters. All that’s certain is that Hassanpour and Boutimar are Kurdish activists.

In the RSF report there are no references to PJAK and the charge that the condemned men are members of that group. The BBC simply quotes a spokesman for the Iranian judiciary as saying the the men had “taken arms to topple the system”.

As for the Kurdish armed resistance, relevant to any charge of espionage are claims from investigative journalist Seymour Hersh and Congressman Dennis Kucinich that PJAK fighters based in northern Iraq have been given equipment and training by the US military. PJAK spokesman Ihsan Warya has said that he wishes it were true but it isn’t.

Hoder refers to a BBC Persian report that specific charges against Hassanpour and Boutimar include arms smuggling, acting as ground controllers for Kurdish forces, and aiding fugitive Kurds. Hassanpour’s lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht, is reported by English PEN as saying that the charges against his client related to a phone conversation he had with a Voice of America journalist. This all adds to the confusion.

If Hassanpour and Boutimar are members of PJAK, then they are combatants in a military conflict with the Iranian state, and we cannot look at this as a simple case of an oppressive government persecuting those who speak their minds.

But the charge of PJAK membership has not been substantiated, or at least not in open court. It is also near impossible in the circumstances for Hassanpour and Boutimar to prove their innocence. Membership of a terrorist organisation is an easy charge to level by those with an anti-Kurdish political agenda, and hatred of the Kurds runs deep and wide.