Two renowned Iranian AIDS physicians were convicted for allegedly taking part in a U.S.-backed plot to topple Iran's Islamic system, mystifying human rights activists who said the two were apolitical and doing innovative work on stemming the spread of the HIV virus.
Rights groups condemned the conviction and sentencing of the scientists, brothers Arash and Kamyar Alaei. It was the latest instance of the hard-line government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad targeting Iranians with Western connections and depicting them as tools for an American campaign to overthrow the Islamic republic.
Iran's state news agency said Monday that the Alaei brothers, and two others convicted in the same case, were leading a CIA-funded effort to recruit other scientists, doctors and professions to foment a "soft overthrow" or velvet revolution in Iran.
"They aimed at creating social crisis, street demonstrations and ethnic disputes," the general director of the Intelligence Ministry's counterespionage section said, according to the state-run IRNA news agency. The director, who was not identified in the report, said the four had already recruited dozens of people and said the CIA spent some $32 million on the plot.
The conviction and sentencing of the four was announced Saturday — but the Alaeis, who were arrested in June, were not identified as among those convicted until Monday's IRNA report. The other two defendants have not been named. While it was announced that all four were sentenced to prison, the length of the sentences has not been made public.
The four were tried in a one-day, closed-door court session in December.
The allegations are similar to those Iran made against four Iranian-Americans in 2007, including academic Haleh Esfandiari. Those four were imprisoned or had their passports confiscated for several months until they were released and allowed to return to the U.S. They all denied the allegations.
While several of those four were involved in democracy-building activities — perhaps explaining why they attracted the attention of Iranian authorities — the Alaei brothers have been strictly apolitical, focusing on AIDS prevention, said Sarah Kolloch, of the Massachusetts-based Physicians for Human Rights.
The Alaeis have run a clinic in Tehran and run HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention programs in Iran, focusing particularly on at-risk sectors like prostitutes and drug users. They have also held training courses for Afghan and Tajik medical workers.
"We don't know why they were targeted. Most of their presentations were about innovative work in Iran on HIV prevention. If anything, Iran should have been excited that something positive like this was coming from Iran," Kolloch said.
Public discussion of AIDS and HIV virus was long taboo in Iran, but in recent years the government has taken one of the most open approaches in the Mideast to the problem. State television has shown programs emphasizing how the virus is transmitted and urging people to avoid sex outside of marriage.
In December, the health minister acknowledged that there were more than 18,000 HIV-positive citizens registered and that the actual number of cases could be as high as 100,000. It blamed not only drug use but also "illegal sexual relations," referring to adultery, prostitution and homosexuality — a rare admission that such phenomena exist in Iran.
Tried due to U.S. contacts?
The prosecution of the Alaeis appeared to have more to do with their contacts with the United States than with their AIDS work.
The doctors' lawyer, Masoud Shafii, told the Associated Press they were tried under a law by which anyone who cooperates with a foreign hostile government against Iran could receive between one to 10 years in prison.
"But their foreign cooperation and relations were only scientific and cultural and not against the country," he said. Shafii said he did not know the length of their sentence because he and the Alaei family had not been officially notified of the verdict. He said he would appeal.
The Alaeis traveled extensively to international conferences on AIDS, and Kamyar Alaei was pursuing a doctorate at the SUNY Albany School of Public Health in Albany, New York. The two attended a 2006 conference in Colorado sponsored in part by the U.S. State Department, but did so with the knowledge of the Iranian government, said Hadi Ghaemi, of the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
"This has been a trend by the Ahmadinejad government — anyone who is promoting Iran internationally can be accused of spying, especially the scientific and academic community," Ghaemi said.
He said he believed the prosecution was an attempt by Ahmadinejad ahead of presidential elections due later this year to show the Iranian public that his government is "uncovering so-called coup plots" against Iran.
Tension between the Washington and Tehran has been high in recent years over Iran's nuclear program and Tehran's alleged arming of Shiite militias in Iraq.