Human rights groups urge Iran to release detained Iranian-American scholars and activists
CAIRO, Egypt -- International human rights groups urged Iran on Thursday to immediately release four Iranian-American scholars and activists being held on suspicion of spying.
The call came as the United States repeated denials the four are spies or employees of the U.S. government. State Department spokesman Tom Casey also said there had been no Iranian response to requests for access to the prisoners by Swiss diplomats who represent U.S. interests in Tehran.
Later Thursday, the State Department warned U.S. citizens against traveling to Iran, accusing Islamic authorities there of a "disturbing pattern" of harassment of Iranian-Americans.
The four detained scholars and activists are Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars; Kian Tajbakhsh with George Soros' Open Society Institute; journalist Parnaz Azima from the U.S.-funded Radio Farda; and Ali Shakeri, a peace activist and founding board member at the University of California, Irvine's Center for Citizen Peacebuilding.
In a joint statement, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Borders, the International Federation for Human Rights and 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, urged Iran to stop the "harassment of dual nationals."
The detentions are an "attempt by Iran's security authorities to sow fear into the wider community of journalists, writers, scholars and activists," said the statement, which was made available to The Associated Press in Cairo.
The detained Iranian-Americans are professionals whose "exchanges with counterparts in other parts of the world underscore both their commitment to enhance mutual respect and recognition of human dignity through dialogue," the groups said.
The statement also accused Iran of confiscating the passport of Mehrnoush Solouki, a French-Iranian journalism student, who had been making a documentary in Iran.
Esfandiari, Tajbakhsh and Azima have been charged with endangering Iran's national security and espionage, Iran's judiciary spokesman said Tuesday.
Casey, the State Department spokesman, confirmed Thursday that Shakeri is also in custody at Tehran's notorious Evin Prison, but it was not immediately clear if he had been charged. He was supposed to leave Iran and fly to Europe on May 13 but never arrived at his destination.
All four were in Iran visiting family members or doing work when they were detained, according to Casey and their relatives and employers.
In its travel warning, the State Department warned that Americans "may be subject to harassment or arrest while traveling or residing in Iran."
"Americans of Iranian origin should consider the risk of being targeted by authorities before planning travel to Iran," the department said, noting that "dual national Iranian-American citizens may encounter difficulty in departing Iran."
Esfandiari and her organization have been accused by the Iranian Intelligence Ministry of trying to set up networks of Iranians to start a revolution to bring down the hardline regime. The ministry alleges that the Open Society Institute, which seeks to promote democracy worldwide, was also part of the conspiracy.
Esfandiari's husband, Shaul Bakhash, the Wilson Center and the Open Society Institute all deny the allegations.
In Madrid, Spain, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said Thursday that he had raised his concerns over Esfandiari's detention when he met with Ali Larijani, the chief Iranian nuclear negotiator.
An EU official who asked for anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the media said the EU had also formally protested her detention and those of the other Iranian-Americans.
The United States broke diplomatic relations with Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Tensions have risen in recent months over Iran's contentious nuclear program and U.S. allegations that Tehran is supporting militias in Iraq.
A fifth U.S. citizen, former FBI agent Robert Levinson, has also been missing in Iran since March, and Washington has cast severe doubt on Iranian claims to have no information about him.
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