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The increasing arrests and detentions of Iranian-American scholars in Iran points to an Iranian government campaign to deter local civil society activists from interacting with Iranians based abroad, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Iranian authorities should immediately release the three Iranian-Americans and the dozens of activists, teachers and scholars arbitrarily detained in a recent government crackdown.

On May 11, agents of the Ministry of Information arrested Kian Tajbakhsh, an Iranian-American sociologist, at his home in Tehran. He is being detained without charge in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. The Ministry of Information is currently holding at least three Iranian-Americans, including Tajbakhsh. It has also confiscated the passport of a fourth Iranian-American, preventing her from leaving the country.

“The Iranian government is holding Iranian-Americans as pawns in its crackdown on local Iranian civil society,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Intelligence agents are trying to force these detainees to make false confessions to incriminate the broader community of Iranian activists and scholars.”

Human Rights Watch said that any statements made by the detainees, while in detention and in the absence of their lawyers, are not credible. The government is holding all of these Iranian-American detainees in incommunicado detention.

Tajbakhsh is a 45-year-old former professor at the New School for Social Research in New York. He has worked as a consultant for several Iranian government agencies, including Iran’s Municipalities Organization and the country’s Social Security Organization. In addition, he has consulted for international organizations such as the World Bank and the Open Society Institute. Tajbakhsh is being held in incommunicado detention without access to legal counsel.

Since May 8, the Iranian authorities have detained Haleh Esfandiari, the 67-year-old director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. Esfandiari traveled to Iran to visit her 93-year-old mother in December, but the government subsequently prevented her from leaving the country and instead subjected her to lengthy interrogations.

After government agents arrested Esfandiari and detained her in Evin prison, the authorities have not allowed her lawyers or family members to visit her. Human Rights Watch is seriously concerned about Esfandiari’s health and well-being. The authorities charged her with politically motivated charges of “acting against national security” on May 15.

Associates of Ali Shakeri, another Iranian-American who had recently traveled to Iran, told Human Rights Watch that he is also being detained by the Iranian authorities. The Iranian government has not provided any public information about his whereabouts.

The authorities are also preventing Parnaz Azima, a reporter for the Persian language services of Radio Free Europe who holds both Iranian and American citizenship, from leaving the country by confiscating her passport in January.

In tandem with this campaign of detaining and harassing Iranian-Americans, in the past month the government has also detained dozens of other Iranian activists, including students, labor organizers and the leaders of a teachers’ union.

The Information Ministry, which is responsible for intelligence operations, has been leading a broad campaign of persecution and prosecution against a wide array of Iranian activists. The ministry is in charge of section 209 of Evin prison, where the majority of detainees, including Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh, are being held.

In recent months, interrogations of detained activists have focused on their ties with their international counterparts. On March 4, agents of the ministry arrested 33 women’s rights activists and held them in Evin prison, where they were interrogated at length about their connections with international organizations. All of the women’s rights activists have been freed after posting heavy bails and their prosecution on charges of “acting against national security” is currently under way.

“The government is allowing an atmosphere of fear and paranoia, propagated by intelligence and security operatives, to dictate its policies,” said Whitson. “Iranian civil society is paying a heavy price for these actions.”

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