Caroline Risacher

Caroline Risacher (Association for the Defense of Azerbaijani Political Prisoners in Iran- ADAPP): Prior to her fellowship, Caroline worked as an International Coordinator at the University of Strasbourg; volunteered in La Paz, Bolivia, for the Bolivian Express magazine; worked for One More Option, a NGO based in France and Ecuador that helps disadvantaged children; and interned at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. Caroline graduated from the University of Strasbourg in France with a Masters in International Relations and European Affairs and a Masters in Human Rights Law with a specialization in Minority Rights.

An Azerbaijani Story Part II: Escaping Iran

22 Aug

This is part two of the story of an Azerbaijani political refugee from Iran. For part one, please read here.

After being imprisoned for 52 days, Yashar was finally released on a one-year parole sentence. However, he couldn’t go back to the university so he went on to do the mandatory military service required in Iran. Conscription in Iran is about two years long and as one can imagine it’s not exactly the most pleasant experience. On one side it’s a good opportunity for young Iranians to meet for the first time people from different backgrounds and ethnicities but on the other side it’s also just another pretext for racism and an excuse for the Iranian authorities to continue the bullying of minorities.

Because of Yashar’s situation and known activism, he wasn’t allowed to touch any weapons. He was sent to the coldest areas in the winter and the hottest regions in the summer. They would move him every couple of months to a new location making him constantly the “new” guy, which is never a comfortable position. The conditions were very hard and even if they didn’t hurt him physically, it was clear that everything was done to pressure him and inflict some form of psychological torture on him.

Two years later, Yashar returned to Maragheh and resumed his human rights activities. The Association for the Defense of Azerbaijani Political Prisoners in Iran was created in 2006 and soon after Yashar got in contact with its Director, Faktheh Zamani. He started working for them from Iran. Internet really opens possibilities and is the only window of freedom in a world of oppression. It can’t be completely controlled. No wonder that when Yashar was imprisoned a couple of years before; they accused him of “using the Internet!” as if it was some horrible crime deserving instant decapitation. However, it still is a long way until Iran reaches the level of connectivity that we achieved.

Eventually, they realized that Yashar was continuing his activities and working with ADAPP. He was asked to go to court a couple of times but never went. Yashar and his family were under constant surveillance; it felt like somebody was always following him, walking behind him in the streets. They also had given his name and picture to Internet cafés in the city so they could report on him. The situation was quickly escalating and when the Intelligence Service searched Yashar’s home during a trip to Tehran, he knew that he couldn’t go back home anymore. That was it. One more arrest and he would be sent to jail for good. Or worse.

“I wanted to keep my life in Iran”, Yashar told me.

ADAPP told him that he needed to escape, leave Iran as soon as possible. Political activists can’t have passports in Iran, so he had to go the illegal way, with smugglers through the Turkish border. With ADAPP’s helps, he managed to collect enough money to pay the smugglers: 700$ was the price of freedom.

To cross the border, they had to walk through the mountains at night, and it was winter, with 60 centimeters of snow. The guide also had to pay off some police guards at the border to leave them alone. Yashar was traveling with a group of about 1000 persons but he was the only Iranian Azerbaijani present, the others were from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, etc. Not everybody was crossing for reasons as noble as Yashar, and no doubt that the smuggling from Iran to Turkey is a highly profitable business for traffickers but it was the only way and also the safest way to leave.

Once they had crossed the border, the Turkish police came and the guide left them with some instructions on how to reach the nearest village. If the guides were to be caught by the Turkish authorities, they would be arrested for human and drug trafficking. The police interrogated Yashar who was the only one they could communicate with and he explained to them that he was a political refugee escaping Iran because of the Azerbaijani situation. They eventually let him and the group go.

So here was Yashar, the only Turkish-speaking member of a pretty large and impossible group, in the middle of the freezing night surrounded by dark and snowy mountains, after just being abandoned by their guide. The area were they crossed is also a Kurdish region, were attacks and killings used to be frequent, which didn’t help feeling safe. He knew one thing though: go west. So he followed the stars and after a couple of hours they eventually found a way to a village nearby.

The group dismantled and Yashar continued alone. He stayed in this village ten days; he then went to Van in the North East of Turkey traveling by animal truck. He went to another city near the Iranian border where he finalized his refugee statute. Until they could decide what to do with him, the Turkish authorities told Yashar to rent a house and live by himself. At this point he was extremely worried about his life and his family. Because of the proximity from the border, he knew they could send someone to kill him; someone even came to physically threaten him. They wanted him to stop his activities. He was giving interviews, writing news, and talking a lot through ADAPP. His family had been threatened too.

After his escape, they interrogated his father, pressured his family into making him come back, telling him to stop his activities. They threatened the family; they said they could make Yashar disappear and them as well. Yashar’s father told him that if he ever came back inside the country they would execute him. Eventually, his family also left Iran and they are now safely living in Turkey. Yashar obtained a political refugee statute for Canada and was finally able to leave Turkey.

Yashar stayed in Turkey from February 1st 2009 to March 2011 when he moved to Vancouver, Canada.

Leaving Iran wasn’t an easy decision but there is little doubt on how it would have ended. Imprisonment, mistreatment, psychological torture, negation of basic medical care is the daily life of tens of prisoners of conscience now in Iran.

When talking with Yashar, I asked him what he thought was Iran biggest problem and how it could be fixed, without hesitation he answered: the racism. The underlying racism against his community, against all minorities actually. The opposition is no less racist than the current government despite their fight for democracy; the Persian majority doesn’t even see that it is an issue worth of concern and the root of a much bigger problem. As long as the racism in Iran is not ackowledged, there is little hope for change and progress. Inevitably, the situation won’t hold and if we look at similar situations in history, a collapse like Yugoslavia seems a more than likely possibility for the future of Iran.

Posted By Caroline Risacher

Posted Aug 22nd, 2012

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