Kian Tajbakhsh, a dual US-Iranian national who was one of more than 100 people tried for political activity after the country's disputed June election, was sentenced to at least 12-years in prison on Tuesday, according to friends and family members. They also say he was not involved in post-election demonstrations.
Mr. Tajbakhsh, an expert on urban planning and local government, has been detained since July and has appeared at some of the televised show trials for regime opponents. Many of the defendants have appeared worn and haggard during their trials and opposition politicians have alleged many have been tortured while in detention by loyalists of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who many in the opposition believe rigged the presidential election. They also allege some of the detainees have been raped by their jailers. At least two of the detainees have died in custody and three protesters were sentenced to death earlier this month.
Friends and acquaintances say Tajbakhsh has a deep love for his home country and has maintained a rigorously apolitical stance in order to be able to come and go from the country unmolested and to work with the government there on urban planning issues. He is the only American citizen among the political prisoners detained on allegations of fomenting unrest after the June election.
"Given the groundless nature of the charges against (him) we call on Iran to grant his immediate release,'' a State Department spokeswoman said. "He poses no threat to the Iranian government or national security. As an internationally respected scholar, Mr. Tajbakhsh has always sought to foster" dialogue with Iran, she added.
Though the Iranian media reported the sentence was for 12-years, Tajbakhsh's lawyer told his family it is in fact a 15-year sentence and that he plans to appeal.
Pamela Kipaldi, a friend of Tajbakhsh's who was working a book with him at the time of his arrest, said his supporters are "shocked and outraged by the news that he has been unjustly sentenced in an extra-judicial proceeding... the baffling charges being lodged by the Revolutionary Court linking Kian together with high-ranking Iranian reformists purportedly plotting to overthrow the regime with American support are entirely baseless."
At the time of his sentencing, another dual national with no known affiliation to Iran's political reformers was released from detention. Maziar Bahari, a Newsweek journalist and a Canadian citizen, was released from three months of detention Tuesday.
Tajbakhsh was also arrested and detained for four months in 2007. At the time he was working for billionaire philanthropist George Soros' Open Society Institute, a group that seeks to foster democracy but that the Iranian government has sought to portray as the shadowy agent of an international plot to foment chaos inside Iran.
After his release Tajbakhsh cut ties with the group. But being an American citizen with this past affiliation makes him vulnerable. The Iranian government has presented the political opposition and its supporters as entirely composed of agents for foreign powers seeking to destroy the Islamic Republic with something it refers to as a "Velvet Revolution plot."
Hadi Ghaemi, head of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, says that "since Kian got out of detention two and a half years ago, he hasn't been involved in anything political in Iran" and that "they're using him as a tool to try to make the case that everything that has happened is the result of foreign government meddling."
There is some hope that Tajbakhsh's appeal will be successful. American-Iranian reporter Roxana Saberi was held for three months in Tehran earlier this year on charges of "espionage." She was sentenced to eight years in prison, but her sentence was reduced and suspended on appeal, and she returned home to the US.
Mr. Ghaemi said the Obama administration has not worked hard enough on securing Tajbakhsh's release, and called on the State Department to make stronger statements of concern.
"The Obama administration is ignoring an ongoing human rights crisis in Iran. It’s a mistake to just reduce Iran to the nuclear dimension and keep complete silence on the human rights crimes taking place there,'' he said. The State Department "has been fairly silent on Iranian human rights since August and I find this deeply troubling."