July 21, 2019

Without a Trace

The last time Ramin Nikkhoo saw his younger brother, Shaheen, was in 1989, before Ramin made the treacherous journey across the Iranian-Pakistani border, hidden in the back of a smuggler’s truck. The route, though dangerous and difficult, was not an unfamiliar option for Iranian Jews.

"At that point in time, [Jews] could not get a passport and leave Iran," says Ramin, 32. "So you would bribe the smugglers to get them to take you out of Iran."

Once in Pakistan, Ramin was able to make his way to a third country, which, to protect others who might attempt the same thing, he prefers not to name. From there, he was able to make it to the United States.

In 1994, Shaheen Nikkhoo, then 20, and a friend, Babak Shaoulian Tehrani, then 17, (whose parents now live in Los Angeles) attempted the same escape. Three days after Shaheen Nikkhoo left the house, his parents received a phone call from the smuggler’s family, who told them that according to eyewitness accounts, the smuggler and his charges had been intercepted and arrested.

The Nikkhoos waited for official word of their son’s detainment but none came. They started asking officials what had happened to him, but nobody had any answers. "We are going to look into it," the Nikkhoos were told, but according to Ramin Nikkhoo, "They never came back with straight answers."

Since then, on five separate occasions — the most recent in February 1997 — 10 more Iranian Jews, ranging in age from 15 to 57, were arrested near the Iranian border and have since disappeared, incarcerated without a trial, imprisoned without word to their respective families. There has been no official confirmation of their detention from the Iranian government, but the families of the prisoners have pieced together a variety of sources that they say prove that the 12 are still alive and are being detained in unofficial Iranian prisons.

"Ninety-nine-point-nine percent we know that they are still alive," Nikkhoo says. "Because if they would have been killed, they would have come and told us."

"The most major difference between these prisoners and those in the Shirazi case is in the fact that in the Shirazi case, the community was able to locate them right away, and the government acknowledged that they had arrested them, and they could not deny that they exist," said Sam Kermanian, secretary-general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation. The Shiraz case (also known as the Iran 13) involved 13 Jewish Iranians who were imprisoned in 1999 on espionage charges, three of whom were later freed.

"In the case of these [12] people, despite all the evidence, the government of Iran is denying that it knows where they are," he said. "The responses that we have been getting are, We will look into it, and we will get back to you,’ and we keep pushing, and the answer is always that they can’t find anything."

For Nikkhoo, a Los Angeles chiropractor, these past eight years have been frustrating, because his efforts to secure his brother’s freedom have yielded little in the way of tangible results. He says he is bothered by the silence imposed on him by the Iranian American Jewish Federation, which told him, when he approached it in 1997 to ask for help, that the issue would be best left unpublicized, and that it was doing all it could.

"Nobody seems to be doing much," Nikkhoo said. "Mr. Kermanian says he is trying to do things, but I think he thinks very politically, and he does not want to let it out, and he does not want to do things that I thought were supposed to be done eight years ago.

"We should have publicized this matter a month after they had been caught, but they told us to wait, and now after eight years, we are still in the same place that we were at the start," he said.

Kermanian told The Journal that his organization has been working on the case since 1994, years before Nikkhoo approached them for help. "We have been looking for any clue we could find, pursuing every possible official and semiofficial channel, checking out prisons in Iran and Pakistan, or anywhere else that the clues lead, bringing it to the attention of the various governments," Kermanian said. "We have come up with a lot of reports, including sightings, including eyewitness reports, but none of it bore fruit."

Kermanian explained that the reason he told Nikkhoo and the other families to be silent was out of a fear for the prisoner’s safety. "The information that we were obtaining was pointing to certain segments of the Iranian security forces that were doing this sort of activity throughout the country, not only with respect to the Jewish community. In many cases when people went missing, as soon the issues became public, their bodies would surface. Our feeling was any time this agency felt that it was threatened, it would get rid of evidence, and we did not want to endanger their [the prisoners’] lives."

Frank Nikbach, the director of public affairs for the Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations, who is also trying to help free these prisoners, disagrees with Kermanian’s approach of public silence and private diplomacy.

"Kermanian believes that the community should be kept unaware of the problems and should be kept silent, and that only certain leaders should negotiate with the government," Nikbach said. "Our ideology is to put them [the Iranian government] under international scrutiny. Unless you pressure the Iranian government through international sanctions and diplomatic pressure, they won’t back down."

Now Nikkhoo is trying to make up for lost time. He has contacted the Red Cross, Amnesty International, Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, among others, to ask for their support. He has also banded together with the other families to form the Families of Iranian Jewish Prisoners group.

"I don’t know what I am supposed to do," he said. "I am just doing as much as I can to publicize this," he says. "I even faxed the office of [U.N. secretary-general] Kofi Annan. But I think that the American Jewish organizations are too busy to listen to us now. This is not a big deal for them since the Israel situation."

Nikkhoo has found the past eight years difficult. "I am in a prison of my own mind," he says. "I sit down every day and try to solve this puzzle of what is going on, and I am going out of my mind just by thinking about it over and over and over again."