When Tehran police handcuffed Sepehr Ebn Yamin last Sunday and hauled him off to jail in connection with a business dispute, the 45-year-old Iranian Jew’s health was already less than hearty: Just two weeks earlier he had suffered a minor heart attack.
By last Monday, Ebn Yamin was dead. And his family in Los Angeles is charging Tehran police with willful negligence of his cries for medical help.
The case follows that of another Tehran Jew who was brutally murdered there last August. Now, Mansour Nejathaim’s family charges that government authorities are doing little or nothing to investigate his killing.
“My family said they might not pursue this, because they’re afraid if they push the police to investigate and they don’t want to, the government — or the killer — might hurt the kids, or other family members,” said one relative of Nejathaim, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The extent to which the authorities’ treatment of these two men may be influenced by their Jewishness is unclear. But according to Iranian Jewish activists here, being Jewish can be a disability in the way the law is applied in Iran, even when the law itself calls for equal treatment. And the law does not always call for equal treatment.
As the State Department’s 1999 Human Rights Report notes, religious minorities “suffer varying degrees of officially sanctioned discrimination, particularly in the areas of employment, education, and public accommodations.” They also, it says, “suffer discrimination in the legal system, receiving lower awards in injury and death lawsuits, and incurring heavier punishments than Muslims.”
Officials at Iran’s UN Mission failed to return a phone call seeking further information on these two cases. But the two deaths come as unwelcome reminders of the perils that critics charge Iran’s justice system holds, even as efforts continue to win the release of 13 Iranian Jews imprisoned since last March under espionage allegations. The 13, who include many noted religious leaders and activists, could be executed if found guilty. Israel and the United States, the countries for which authorities charge they spied, both strongly deny the allegation.
With the help of relentless international diplomatic pressure, some Jewish leaders now believe they may be on the verge of making progress towards the release of the 13. After months of working quietly through intermediaries to reach an understanding with key Iranian officials, they are now looking for a signal that would show an agreement to ultimately release them is on. But according to sources, this has yet to materialize.
“Certain things were supposed to happen,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Presidents. “We’re still hopeful.”
But at least one source who has been in regular touch with Iranian authorities holds little hope for progress in the politically sensitive affair until after crucial parliamentary elections next February.
“That’s a long time for those poor people in prison,” said this source, who spoke only on condition of anonymity. “But the problem is, if anyone moves to do anything for the Jews now, it will instantly become an election issue. No one is prepared to risk [that].”
Journalists visiting Iran, meanwhile, report that the jailing of the 13 has sparked widespread Jewish distress over what many view as an unprecedented assault on their longstanding security as a protected, if second-class, minority. Still, most the country’s estimated 25,000 Jews seem committed to staying in what is the most ancient Jewish community in the diaspora, notwithstanding relatively liberal emigration laws.
Ebn Yamin, who was a U.S. resident, actually returned to Iran in the early 1990s, only a year or two after emigrating to Los Angeles. His story, including the complex legal troubles that led to his arrest and death, illustrate the wrenching nature of the dislocation Iran’s Jewish emigres undergo, even as they remain tied in myriad ways to the land of their birth.
When Sepehr Ebn Yamin died in police custody, he had not seen his wife or children for six years. And when he was buried in Tehran last week, they could not attend his funeral. The Tehran native had left them behind in Los Angeles when his father, who had remained in Iran, died. His goal was to try to retain the bicycle factory the family owned, which the government now sought to take over under absentee owner laws. It was an asset than Ebn Yamin felt his family, which was struggling financially in their adopted homeland, urgently needed.
Ebn Yamin, however, was only one of three brothers who were heirs to the factory. And the government, noting the other two had also emigrated, claimed a right to two-thirds ownership of the business.
According to his brother Kamran Ebn Yamin, Sepehr resorted to a legal strategy to forestall this. “He wrote out an IOU to a Muslim man he had known for many years and really trusted,” Kamran related. With this document, he was able to convince the government that his Muslim friend retained a right to a share of the factory, stymieing the government’s claim.
“Unfortunately, things went sour,” Kamran said. The Muslim friend discovered he had cancer. And numerous trips to Switzerland for costly treatments left him ruined financially. “The Muslim guy was supposed to return the money [he was receiving under the terms of the IOU],” Kamran related. “But he thought he needed it for his medical care.”
On the day of the death, Kamran said, “They had a big argument in front of the factory. And when they called in the authorities, they were trying to come up with a solution.”
Instead, Kamran claimed, his brother was handcuffed, shoved into a police car and treated roughly. Basing his account on information he said he’d received from a cousin in Tehran who collected his brother’s body and is now looking into the affair, Kamran said, “By the time Sepehr got to court, he told the authorities he wasn’t feeling well, that he had chest pains. But they ignored him, persisted in questioning him and putting on pressure. And he had a heart attack.
“He definitely could have been saved,” said Kamran. He denied press reports that police at one point told his cousin that Sepehr had committed suicide.
According to the family of Mansour Nejathaim, his death, too, may be tied to his relations with a Muslim business associate. A wealthy Tehran real estate executive, Nejathaim, 65, was found in his office last August three days after the killing. His throat was slit, his fingers were broken, and his body was wrapped in burlap. About $2,000 had been rifled from his office safe. But Nejathaim’s family does not believe robbery was a real motive for the heinous killing.
“For the past two years he was working with a Muslim guy whom he really trusted,” said one family member. “They became good friends. But he didn’t know this man might be jealous of his success.”
According to this family member, at the time of his murder, Nejathaim’s relationship with the business associate had taken an angry turn. The associate, the relative related, had offered Nejathaim $8,000 for a piece of property the Jewish real estate agent valued at $100,000. And when he declined the offer, the Muslim associate continued to pressure him.
Then, during the three days he was missing, his family, who had not told friends or neighbors, received a call. “This Muslim friend called up Mansour’s wife to give her his condolences,” the relative related. “But they didn’t know yet he was dead, just that he had disappeared.”
The police questioned the man, this family member said, but he was never arrested. And now the police probe itself appears to be dead.
Jews still in Iran report frequent and close relationships with their Muslim neighbors, a continuation of long years of such ties both before and after Iran’s 1979 Revolution. But according to one Iranian Jewish activist here, these relationships, which are genuine, can mask the sudden disability Jews face if ever go bad and come under the sway of the legal system.
According to Pooya Dayanim of the Council of Iranian Jewish Organizations in Los Angeles, the case of Nejathaim may highlight the vulnerability Jews now face in selling assets. As Jewish emigration increases, especially in the wake of the case of the 13, Iranian Muslims believe they can hold up a Jew with demands to pay only a fraction of the price.
“They can say, if you complain, we will go to the authorities and say you said things against Islam,” said Dayanim. “They know when Jews sell property, that’s a sign they’re trying to leave the country.”
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