Activist Held in Iran Is Executed, Family Fears
The Los Angeles Times
By Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, Times Staff Writer
While living in Reseda, the man helped many refugees find jobs. His relatives and human rights groups cling to hope.
May 22, 2001
The words of the Persian-language broadcast cut Mohammad Reza Pedram's family like shards of glass: The former Reseda man who helped hundreds of refugees find jobs in Los Angeles was believed to be dead, executed over the weekend by his Iranian jailers on trumped-up charges of spying.
It's a conclusion Pedram's wife and three children refuse to accept, however. With no body, no confirmation from Iranian authorities and repeated denials from Pedram's siblings in the Islamic Republic, they won't give up. "From the bottom of my heart, I believe maybe he's alive," says Pedram's eldest daughter Nazila Pedram-Samet. "But maybe it's just wishful thinking."
Her aunt in Tehran, tearful and strangely vague during recent conversations over a tapped telephone, urged her to pray.
The prayers went unanswered Monday: Pedram's former colleague, Mohammad Parvin of Rancho Palos Verdes, received a fax from a government-opposition group inside Iran stating that Pedram was taken to an undisclosed location for hanging.
In the Chicago suburbs where they now live, Pedram's wife and children were drowning in condolence calls from Iranians who heard the Beverly Hills-based radio announcements over the previous 48 hours. The report also appeared on a Persian language Internet site, http://www.didgah.com. At the family's request, the Web site removed the item Sunday pending confirmation of Pedram's death.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have stepped in to try to determine the 56-year-old Pedram's fate. They are pessimistic.
"Iran is a closed country. When it comes to fact-finding, it's impossible to do," said Elahe Hicks, Iran researcher for Human Rights Watch in New York.
It has been almost five years since Pedram, a tall, fair-skinned man, vanished during a 1996 trip to Iran to visit his dying father. Since then, Nazila Pedram-Samet, her two siblings and their mother have lived in constant and silent fear, worried that any government or news media attention to Pedram's imprisonment would only anger his jailers and make things worse.
Not that the cleric-run courts needed prompting to vent their displeasure with the former Iranian Air Force officer in their custody. He'd committed a major crime in Iran by emigrating in 1986 during the Iran-Iraq war, compounding the matter by becoming a legal resident of Iran's other enemy, the United States.
After repeated beatings that left him with broken bones and a damaged left eye, Pedram was sentenced to death four years ago. The sentence was subsequently commuted to life in prison, then reinstated and then reduced to 10 years in prison as recently as three months ago, relatives and fellow prisoners said.
Three weeks ago, they were told, the death sentence was suddenly reinstated.
"There were times I thought he'll be OK, he'll be in prison for life, twenty years, fifteen years," said former colleague Parvin, head of Mission for Establishment of Human Rights in Iran, a group he founded years ago to highlight the plight of political prisoners in the Islamic Republic. (Amnesty International says Iran was one of four countries, including the United States, responsible for 88% of the world's government-sponsored executions last year, with at least 75.) But until last week, Parvin agreed to keep Pedram's plight a secret. "Now, I don't know if it was actually the right thing," he said. "Probably I should have done something differently."
Pedram-Samet shares that frustration. Ever since she went to Los Angeles International Airport in September 1996 expecting to pick up her father upon his return from Iran, she has been in a race to save him.
When he did not get off the KLM jet he was supposed to have boarded in Amsterdam, she called her family in Iran. Her father had gone to the airport, her aunt assured her.
No News for Months
KLM officials told her somebody had used Pedram's ticket and disembarked in Holland. But they wouldn't give her the name of passengers seated next to the man--"For security reasons," she was told--so she was never able to determine if it was really him.
The trail went cold and for three months, no one knew what had happened to Pedram.
A sister in Iran was the first to learn of his fate. He had been arrested as he tried boarding the plane at Mehrabad Airport in Tehran, despite holding a pardon letter from the Iranian government for his desertion and U.S. residency. Accusing him of being a U.S. spy, they sent him to the notorious Evin prison outside Tehran. Two students who were then jailed with him, Gholamreza Mohajeri Nejad and Hamid Alizadeh, recall Pedram as an affable, upbeat prisoner who worked 12 or more hours a day in the prison infirmary. "Mr. Pedram was a good man, he tried to teach prisoners English," said Mohajeri Nejad, reached in Washington, D.C.
But at night, Pedram would reveal a more broken side, said Alizadeh, who fled to Turkey several months ago. Pedram recounted the endless interrogations and beatings by his Iranian jailers. "He told me 'I feel I am in a jungle, and that my eyes are closed and these men are speaking Farsi and sound Iranian, but have to be foreign. I cannot believe any Iranian could do this to another Iranian,' " Alizadeh recalled.
Pedram also spoke lovingly of his family, particularly his son Amir, who last saw his dad at age 16. "I have a feeling my son has grown up in my absence," he lamented to Alizadeh one night after receiving a letter from the boy.
Pedram's wife, Homa, received a couple of shakily written letters from her husband in the past 14 months, half-page diatribes urging her and the children to be strong and to accept "God's will" over his incarceration, Pedram-Samet said. "The letters read like someone was standing right over his head, as if it was forced."
At Pedram's former Los Angeles workplace, the federally funded Pacific Asian Consortium in Employment, co-workers were stunned Monday to learn their former colleague, whom everyone called "Mo," could be dead. "He was such a nice guy, a very hard worker who helped a lot of refugees gain employment," said Albert Sy, who directs the department for which Pedram worked. As a refugee himself, he had a lot of compassion for others in his situation, says Pedram's wife, Homa.
"I hope someone can help us figure this thing out," said Nazila Pedram-Samet. "We can't go on like this."