A former political prisoner in Iran is facing imminent deportation back to that country after a decade of waiting in Turkey for resettlement and despite having once been granted asylum status by the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR.
Journalist and rights activist Shahram Elyasi, an Iranian Kurd, has been given 10 days to appeal the decision before being returned with his family to Iran.
Speaking to VOA, Elyasi said UNHCR granted asylum to him, his wife and two daughters in Turkey in 2015, and they waited to be transferred to the United States.
But with a flood of Syrian refugees fleeing to Turkey and the travel ban on several Muslim countries ordered by former President Donald Trump in 2017, Elyasi and his family remained in Turkey. In 2018, the UNHCR handed refugee affairs over to Turkey’s Directorate General of Migration Management.
After several interviews, the Elyasi family’s case was denied.
Elyasi was arrested in Tehran in 2007 and sentenced to 11 years in prison for “threatening national security and espionage,” according to the Tehran court. He was released on bail after six years and fled to Turkey with his family.
“My life will be in danger if I’m deported to Iran because I was a political prisoner in Iran,” he told VOA. “I am currently a member of the Iran Human Rights Watch and The Campaign for the Defense of Political and Civil Prisoners, which stands against the death penalty. I am also a member of Kurdish PEN, and I am working as a journalist in Turkey. All of these are considered crimes in Iran.”
Leyla Rawand, Elyasi’s wife, has also been imprisoned several times in Iran for her activities as a member of the Marivan Women’s Council and the Stop Honor Killings campaign. She also has been a member and an activist of the Campaign to Free Political Prisoners in Iran.
“The effects of those days are still on my body and mind,” Rawand told VOA. “Now that we are threatened to be deported, our fears and stress have dramatically increased. The fear, anxiety and worry of these days remind me of the days I was in prisons in Sanandaj, Rajai and Marivan.”
Rawand said she and Elyasi were mostly concerned for the future of their daughters, adding, “My eldest daughter, 16, says, ‘We are together now. But if we go back to Iran, we will lose our parents.'”
The couple has received support from several Iranian exile groups, including Kurdish PEN. However, the support letter from the organization was rejected by Turkish refugee authorities because “the name Kurdistan should not be used in Turkey,” they said.
According to Taimoor Aliasi, the Associaton of Human Rights in Kurdistan’s representative at the U.N. in Geneva, Iranian Kurdish political activists and journalists in Turkey are under increased pressure since refugee officials in Ankara seem to favor deportations to Iran now.
“Since the fate of the refugees was handed over to the Turkish authorities, it is been decided to deport most of the Kurdish refugees to Iran, many of whom have political backgrounds,” he said.
Aliasi charged that those with political imprisonment history in Iran or membership in Iranian Kurdish parties are especially at risk.
“This issue must be brought to the attention of the public, because the lives of these people are in grave danger. They will not only be imprisoned and tortured but also face death threats,” he added.
According to a recent report from the United Nations, the number of executions in Iran increased by 30% in 2023. In his Nov. 2 report to the U.N. General Assembly, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Iran was conducting executions at an unprecedented pace, with at least 419 individuals put to death in the initial seven months of 2023.
Guterres said seven men were executed in connection with, or for their involvement in, nationwide protests triggered by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September 2022.
This story originated in VOA’s Kurdish Service.