An appeal to President Ahmadinejad; that’s the title of the lead Editorial in tomorrow’s Nature. I’ve appended some excerpts from the Editorial below. I’ve also an accompanying news story here — note all Nature news stories are free to access for one week — which describes the facts of the case, which I blogged about earlier here.
Iran has sentenced two of the country’s HIV researchers to prison for communicating with an “enemy government” and plotting to overthrow the state. Arash and Kamiar Alaei, who are brothers, underwent a half-day trial on 31 December in Tehran’s Revolutionary Court. Kamiar was sentenced to three years in prison, and Arash to six.
The Iranian authorities notified the physicians’ lawyer, Masoud Shafie, of the verdicts on 20 January. He has 20 days to appeal and intends to do so; the brothers say they are innocent.
The Alaeis were arrested last June, and their detention and trial were “unfair even by the draconian standards of Iran’s penal code”, says Jonathan Hutson, a spokesman for Physicians for Human Rights, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Excerpts from the Editorial
“Iran now has one of the best prison programmes for HIV in not just the region, but in the world,” exclaimed Hamid Setayesh, the UNAIDS coordinator for the country, in 2006. “They’re passing out condoms and syringes in prisons. This is unbelievable. In the whole world, there aren’t more than six or seven countries doing that.”
Human-rights organizations who have examined the brothers’ cases say that their detention, which began in June last year, and their convictions on 31 December in a closed trial lasting barely half a day, both fell far short of the minimum international legal norms for a fair and equitable procedure.
An especially puzzling aspect of the case is that Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has publicly supported international collaboration in science. Speaking at Columbia University in New York in September 2007, he invited Columbia faculty members and students to work with their counterparts in Iran. “You’re officially invited,” he said.
Such dialogue — ‘smart power’ — should be encouraged by all sides, because cooperation in the relatively apolitical areas of medicine and science keeps open rare avenues of back-channel diplomacy. Unfortunately, ‘dumb power’ is currently prevailing. The action of the Iranian judiciary in this case can have only a chilling effect on such activities, and there have been ill-considered moves elsewhere. Prime examples are the shortsighted visa policies being pursued by nations such as France, which unjustly discriminate against Iranian researchers (see Nature 456, 680–681; 2008), and the Bush administration’s declaration that the United States is seeking regime change in Iran by supporting ‘pro-democracy’ elements there. Academics in Iran who desire reform, but by self-determination, say that such covert US policies have left them vulnerable to the same charges faced by the Alaei brothers. More smart power is needed all round.
President Ahmadinejad. Your country’s HIV-prevention programme has won respect in the Muslim world and beyond. As you said at Columbia University, the open scientific and medical dialogue needed to progress in issues such as the fight against AIDS must be above the contemporary realpolitik of broader political issues. We urge you today to request the appropriate authorities to review the cases of Arash and Kamiar Alaei so that the truth may prevail.