Afshin Sheikholeslami Vatani (C) immigrated to the United States in 2015 but before his arrest he had visited Iran several times to see his family. (Supplied)

By Niloufar Rostami

June 25, 2019

An Iranian Kurdish political activist and United States resident who spent time in jail in February 2019 while visiting Iran has been banned from leaving the country. Afshin Sheikholeslami Vatani has been charged with disrupting public order and membership to the outlawed Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), an armed Kurdish opposition group.

An informed source told IranWire that Sheikholeslami was waiting for his case to be sent to the court so that a trial date could be set,  which is normal judicial procedure. But an official in the prosecutor’s office in Sanandaj, the capital of Iranian Kurdistan, where his family lives, told him: “The prosecutor believes the case is still incomplete and he must wait.”

The source said: “It is not clear what the prosecutor means by ‘incomplete.’ Apparently they want to summon and interrogate Afshin again. He has been waiting for his trial since March 2019, when he was temporarily released. They seized his passport and have banned him from leaving Iran. When he pleaded with them to let him return to the US because his livelihood is there, he was told mockingly: ‘return where? You are going to stay here.’ Not only has he been banned from leaving Iran but his case remains in limbo.”

Sheikholeslami is a civil engineer and a member of the Kurdish Branch of the National Unity Party. Prior to emigrating to the United States in 2015, he was arrested in 2010, but since leaving the country he had visited his family several times without encountering any problems.

But on February 17, 2019, a month after he last arrived in Iran, Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Corps agents arrested him at his parents’ home. “The night that the agents burst in, his uncle was staying there as their guest,” says the source. “The agents showed Afshin a piece of paper that was apparently a warrant for his arrest and to search their home. The agents searched the house and then took him with them. Five or six days after his arrest, Afshin had a short phone conversation with his mother and told her that he was doing okay. He was released on bail almost a month later.”

Revolutionary Guards Against the Environment

Afshin Sheikholeslami and two other activists, Arman Vafaei and Fardin Karimi, were both released on a bail amount of 500 million tomans (close to $120,000) on March 19, 2019. According to IranWire’s source, Sheikholeslami has denied the charges brought against him. “Afshin is a member of the Kurdish Branch of the National Unity Party, a legally registered party, but apparently the Revolutionary Guards are not happy with their activities. Members of this party are mostly engaged in social, cultural and environmental activities. Afshin was active in environmental causes such as preventing the destruction of Kurdistan’s forests and nature. Some of Kurdistan’s forest have been destroyed by natural causes but there are other parts that have been destroyed intentionally by the Revolutionary Guards. Opposition Kurdish groups know their way around the forests but the Guards are not well acquainted with Kurdistan’s nature so they tear down the forest to gain control over the environment. They damage the beautiful nature of Kurdistan.”

When Sheikholeslami was arrested in 2010, he was one of a number of political and civil activists detained after holding a rally outside Sanandaj’s central prison to protest against the scheduled execution of the Kurdish civil activist Habibollah Latifi. He spent three weeks in the detention center of Sanandaj’s Intelligence Bureau and was then released on bail.

Habibollah Latifi, an industrial engineering student at the University of Ilam, was arrested in the fall of 2007. He was brutally tortured and sentenced to death for acting against national security because of his work with PJAK. After the protests and an international outcry against the sentence, the planned execution was delayed and Latifi’s sentence was reduced to life in prison.

Currently, Sheikholeslami is living in limbo. The prosecutor for Sanandaj has not agreed to lift his travel ban nor has he sent his case to the court to set a date for his trial.

Iran Wire

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Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.