An Armenian is imprisoned in Iranian crackdown

Silva Harotonian’s family blames “tragic misunderstanding”

Washington – An Iranian-Armenian employee of the U.S. government-funded International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX) has been detained in Iran for more than seven months and was recently sentenced to a three-year prison term, her employer and family said in statements last week.

Silva Harotonian, 34, an Iranian citizen, was arrested on June 26, 2008, while on a business trip to Tehran for IREX’s Maternal and Child Health Education and Exchange Program (MCHEEP). Ms. Harotonian was an administrative officer for the program, launched in 2007, and the only IREX staff member on the ground in Iran at the time.

According to a statement by IREX president Robert Pearson, her “role as a program administrator involved explaining logistics for the two-week exchange program, translating documents between Armenian and English into Farsi, and answering telephone inquiries.”

On January 19, Ms. Harotonian was sentenced to three years in prison on what IREX described as “erroneous” charges of plotting against the Iranian government; she is currently appealing the ruling.

Keith Mellnick, a spokesperson for IREX in Washington, told the Armenian Reporter that his organization was “working with the family to open channels to the Iranian government to free Silva Harotonian” and were seeking public support for the same.

Forced confession

The Iranian-Armenian’s arrest was first revealed on January 21 by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI); she was then identified as Sylvia Hartounian.

Citing its sources inside Tehran’s Evin prison, the group reported that following ten days of solitary confinement, Ms. Harotonian was forced under duress to claim she was part of a “plot” against the Islamic Republic. That report was picked up by the Los Angeles Times.

In a report on January 19, Press TV, Iran’s English-language television station, cited an unnamed Iranian intelligence official as saying that four individuals were sentenced on charges of “organizing anti-government public rallies and creating ethnic division in the country.”

The channel further cited Tehran’s Islamic Revolution Court as concluding in its verdict that the four Iranian citizens “confessed to trying to distance the people of Iran from the government and introduce the United States as their sole savior.”

Hadi Ghaemi, a New York-based spokesperson for ICHRI, said Ms. Harotonian was likely to be one of the four individuals being referred to by Press TV. The other two are brothers Arash and Kamiar Alaei, both Iranian medical doctors who focus on HIV/AIDS; the fourth is so far unnamed, but is believed to be an Iranian documentary filmmaker, although it is unclear whether their cases are connected.

It is normal practice in Iran for the government and judiciary not to reveal to the public the names of those detained, Mr. Ghaemi told the Armenian Reporter. The families in turn tend not to publicize the names of the detained, hoping to quietly win government leniency.

IREX and Ms. Harotonian’s family went public about the arrest only after initial reports by human rights activists.

Family appeal, a website launched on behalf of Ms. Harotonian’s family in Los Angeles on February 20, seeks to gather public support “in respectfully urging the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran to grant the release of our loved one.”

“Our family has always appreciated the Iranian government’s efforts to ensure the safety, religious freedom and prosperity of its Armenian community,” the family said in a statement. “We believe releasing Silva would further demonstrate Iran’s solidarity with its Armenian population and generosity toward our loyal Christian minority.”

After studying Armenian literature at the Azad University in Tehran, Ms. Harotonian taught at an Armenian school and held several administrative jobs, including at the Armenian Prelacy in Tehran. Her family described her as a “patriot” of Iran and a loyal citizen, pointing to the formal recognition she received for her role in celebrations marking the Islamic Revolution anniversary in 2004.

Ms. Harotonian recently moved to Yerevan, where she began working for the IREX program that supports health practitioners in Iran.

On the website, the family described Ms. Harotonian’s arrest and imprisonment as a “tragic misunderstanding.” They argued instead that “granting her a release after serving time in prison would recognize both the need for law-abiding behavior and the value of forgiveness of innocent mistakes.”

Caught in a stand-off

Although United States entities are not legally allowed to operate in Iran, U.S. government-funded organizations like IREX and others have worked with Iran’s nongovernmental groups.

At the same time, the Bush administration publicly sought to undermine Iran’s government, and there were credible reports of U.S.-funded covert operations underway.

As a result, all U.S.-funded projects in Iran – even those dealing with science, education, and healthcare – have come under official suspicion, with a number of individuals – mostly Iranian citizens -held and imprisoned by the government.

Mr. Ghaemi estimated about 400 individuals are currently being held in Iran on politically motivated charges. In a recent case, a scholar of Iranian descent and U.S. citizen, Haleh Esfandiari, was released after months of detention in 2007.