A cloud of yellow balloons recently filled the sky above the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), where on March 6 the local chapter of Amnesty International staged a protest against the detention of Hamid Babaei, an Iranian graduate student studying industrial engineering in Belgium, until his imprisonment in Iran almost two years ago.
The Iranian embassy is across the street from the ULB campus.
Babaei and his wife, Cobra Parsajoo, had been living in Belgium for several years and both had received academic grants to pursue graduate studies. (Parsajoo is a pharmacy doctoral student.) In the summer of 2013, the couple returned to Iran on vacation. During their stay, intelligence officers approached Babaei and asked him to collaborate with the Iranian government by informing on fellow Iranian students living in Belgium. Babaei refused, claiming he had no special knowledge or interest in politics.
On August 5, 2013, while he waited at the airport for his flight back to Belgium, he was arrested and accused of spying.
Babaei was jailed and interrogated in the infamous Evin prison, a home to so many arrested intellectuals that it's earned the nickname “Evin University.” On December 21, 2013, after a kangaroo court that lasted ten minutes denied Babaei a lawyer and the opportunity to testify in his own defense, he was sentenced to six years in prison for “acting against national security by communicating with hostile governments.” According to an article in the Belgian newspaper L'avenir,
Dans son jugement, le président du Tribunal révolutionnaire a retenu à l’encontre de l’étudiant que la bourse et les subsides que lui allouait l’université de Liège constituaient des «preuves» de son inféodation à des «Etats hostiles».
In rendering his judgment, the chairman of the Islamic Revolutionary Tribunal held against him the fact that the student had received a fellowship and a grant from the Universidad of Liège, stating that this constituted “proof” that he was under the influence of “hostile governments.”
Babaei has recently been transferred to the notoriously harsh Rajai Shahr prison, and he runs the risk of being placed in one of the communal wards shared by violent criminals. Since his transfer on February 17, Babaei has been on a hunger strike.
Iranian authorities have pressured Babaei on several occasions to confess publicly to the crimes of which he stands accused and also to implicate his wife. So far, he's resisted, sparing his wife very serious consequences, as she is currently living with her family in Iran, barred from leaving the country. Undeterred, she has mounted a formidable media campaign to free her husband.
Babaei's story is just one of many. During the Ahmadinejad Presidency, Iran's intelligence services increased surveillance of expatriate Iranians. Blogger mmellissa78 sums up the situation on her site Shadow Diplomacy:
Iranian Expats, Beware.
It seems that you can decide to leave Iran but Iran can decide not to leave you, both metaphorically and literally.
So while Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is trying to set up a committee for the return of Iranians from abroad and while President Hassan Rouhani promises to improve the state of human rights in Iran, the regime that preceded them is still working based on a code: either you root for Iran or you become its enemy. If you don’t spy for the regime, you must be spying against it…simple, and very very sad.
Ever since the tribulations of Hamid Babaei and his wife began, classmates at the University of Lièges and in Brussels have regularly demonstrated their solidarity, organizing rallies, writing letters to Belgian and Iranian authorities, and promoting online petitions demanding their release and permission for them to return to Belgium to resume their studies.
With this symbolic act, students and professors are determined to keep Hamid Babaei's case in the spotlight.