Letter to Mr Win Griffiths, MP
13 December 2004
(Reproduced by kind permission of Ebrahim Khodabandeh)
Dear Mr Griffiths,
Before anything else, I should thank you again for the trip you made to Tehran together with Sir Teddy Taylor MP, and your efforts to help have my friend, Mr Jamil Bassam and myself released.
As I explained in our meeting in Tehran, I was sent to Syria in April 2003 on a visa issued by the Syrian embassy in London, to help members and supporters of the Mojahedin Khalq Organisation (MKO) in Iraq who, since the start of the war, were now trying to escape from that country. All my efforts in the ten days prior to my arrest on the border were spent trying to sort out these people’s transit problems with border officials so that they could be transferred to Europe through Syria. I engaged the office of the UNHCR and the Red Cross in Damascus but all my efforts and the intervention of these offices proved futile.
On Friday 18 April 2003, I was ordered to go with Jamil Bassam to Boukamal on the Iraq-Syria border to await some baggage which was being sent from Iraq. At the same time a village woman had been arrested and was being questioned at the custom office of Boukamal border. She had brought seven suitcases from Iraq which contained around two million US dollars in cash, a box full of gold and jewellery, tens of passports, and documents and pictures belonging to the Mojahedin organisation, including pictures taken of the aftermath of the bombardment of the military bases of the National Liberation Army by the American and British forces, and video and audio tapes and computer disks and other documents which clearly identified the source of the suitcases as the MKO. As I was already known at Boukamal as an Iranian directly involved in helping escaping MKO personnel, their suspicion fell on me and I was arrested shortly after the arrest of the woman. I was taken to where the suitcases were being examined. The woman said that some Iranians whom she did not know had paid her to take the suitcases across the border and to deliver them to some unknown people on this side of the border, and that she did not have any knowledge of the contents of the suitcases. Confronted by this situation, I was caught off guard and simply denied all knowledge of the event. My friend Mr Bassam was not known in the area and was not arrested. After I did not return to him, he called the MKO in Paris and asked what he should do. He was told to go and claim the baggage and bring it with him. When Mr Bassam came into the customs office for the baggage he was also arrested. We were separated and taken to Damascus immediately for investigation and interrogation.
Exactly seven weeks after our arrest, on Thursday 5th July 2003, the Syrian agents who told us we were to be deported to the UK, transferred us instead to Iran and we were taken to Evin Prison.
It was only later I discovered that almost immediately we were transferred to Iran, the National Council of Resistance (NCR) issued three different statements announcing our transfer and alleging that we are under torture and awaiting execution. Later the NCR demanded our release and return to Britain. I also found out that a Parliamentary Ad Hoc Committee had been organised under your directive and with the involvement of some other British MPs, to effect pressure on Iran to free us.
Since finding this out, the question which has preyed on my mind and which I mention in this letter in the hope of getting an answer directly from your good self is why the news of mine and my friend's arrest and imprisonment in Syria was kept secret by the organisation for the full seven weeks that we were under interrogation there? Why didn't the NCR inform international human rights organisations or even my brother or my daughter who live in Britain. Why did the NCR not issue any statement at that time and why was no committee formed then for our release? I am sure you would agree that such measures taken from the beginning would most probably have prevented our transfer to Iran. This kind of action would also have allowed the NCR to explain its own position as regards the arrest of two of its members on a political mission and could have shed some light on the affair. I am very interested to know what stopped the organisation from informing my brother or my daughter so that at the very least they could do whatever possible to help in this situation.
When we met in Tehran, my daughter complained bitterly about this and said that if she had known about my arrest from the start, she and her husband would have found the best lawyers in the UK and would have travelled to Syria straight away to do whatever possible to ensure my safe return to London. I am sure that had my brother and his wife been informed, they also would have activated their own connections which are numerous.
My daughter told me that she contacted Amnesty International as soon as she was put in the picture but that officials at AI were also complaining of not being told sooner, and told her that if they had known of our arrest while we were in Syria, they could have intervened directly as well as through other channels in Syria and could have secured our safe return to London. I also met with the representative of the UNHCR in Tehran and he said that if we had asked for help while in Syria, considering that we had political asylum from the UK, they could have forced the Syrian officials to return us to Britain.
The next thing I would like to ask you is more on behalf of my daughter than myself and that is about the pressure which was brought to bear on her by the organisation's agents in Britain to participate in some activities against the Islamic Republic of Iran using the allegations of the torture of me and my friend or the alleged preparations to execute us. This was to the extent that even though she had just given birth to a baby, they asked her to go to London and commit self immolation outside parliament as a protest. An act which according to my daughter's consultation with several legal bodies, human rights organisations and others, including the Foreign Office would have done nothing to help my situation or gain my freedom, and might in all probability have had a negative effect. The advice she received from all those she consulted was that direct contact with the Iranian Embassy in London and a visit to Iran would be the most effective way to ensure our freedom. And of course, that is what she has done. It is necessary to mention of course, that the Baroness Emma Nicholson, Sir Teddy Taylor MP, the UNHCR representative and may others have met with me and Jamil Bassam in Evin and are seriously monitoring and following our legal situation and court cases in Iran.
The next question is one in which I am more personally interested. I would like to put to you that after your visit to Tehran and to Evin prison and your return to Britain, what activities have been performed in the framework of your Parliamentary Ad Hoc Committee to help us and how active has the Committee been? Has the Committee stopped its work totally? Is there any reason that the case is not being followed any more? It was expected that this Committee would announce its report and explain its work and its achievements. But it appears that after your trip to Iran and the meetings which you had with me and Jamil Bassam, the activities of the Committee have been put on hold for some unknown reason. What are the reasons behind this sudden cessation in activities? As far as I know my brother and my daughter were and are very keen about the continuation of any support.
Another question concerns the nature of the Committee itself. Is (or was) the Committee only interested in freedom for me and my friend or does it have concern for other members of the organisation? As you saw in Evin prison, there are several other people who had been sent to Iran to carry out terrorist activities, in particular between June 1998 and July 2001. Some had been arrested before they acted and some after. Some have been sentenced and some, like me and my friend, are awaiting trial. And of course, some have already been released. They have all acknowledged damaging property and endangering the lives of innocent civilian people. Has this Committee any program to scrutinize these cases? Is it at all interested in them? Does it know about or does it want to know about them?
I have also been informed that there are several hundreds of NLA members in Iraq who have separated from the Mojahedin and who do not want to stay with the organisation to carry out military operations against the Islamic Republic of Iran. They are now being held in a separate part of the camp under the supervision of the American army in Iraq. Those who have managed to escape from the camp emphasise that conditions in that part of the camp are very bad. I would like to know if your Committee would like to help these people? After all, the number of them is not small. Surely a widespread and coordinated action to help and release them from this situation is necessary. I ask your Committee which was put together for humanitarian reasons to act on this very humanitarian disaster and needful situation.
Finally, I would like to ask you and the other members of your Committee to ensure the effect of your work by travelling to Iran and Iraq in person or as groups and to especially visit the places in which the MKO are held under the supervision of American forces in Iraq and also to act in the interests of the arrested people in Iraq to ensure their freedom.
May I thank you again while waiting for your response to my letter.
Tehran/ Evin prison
13 December 2004
Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne