Ahmadreza Djalali was arrested in April 2016 on still-unknown charges.

Courtesy of VUB

Disaster medicine scientist may face death sentence in Iran

*Correction, 7 February, 2:15 p.m.: This story previously said, based on information provided by the Free University of Brussels, that Djalali had been sentenced to death. On 7 February, we learned that information was erroneous. The story has been corrected accordingly.

A researcher studying disaster medicine at two European institutes has been detained in Iran for 9 months, apparently for security-related offenses, and may face the death penalty. Iranian-born Ahmadreza Djalali, a scientist at the Research Center in Emergency and Disaster Medicine (CRIMEDIN) at the University of Eastern Piedmont in Novara, Italy, and the Free University of Brussels (VUB), was arrested in April 2016, and has spent much of the time since in solitary confinement and without access to a lawyer.

According to Amnesty International, Djalali was taken before Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran on 31 January, without his lawyer present, and was told by the presiding judge that he was accused of “espionage” and could face the death penalty.

 

Colleagues are convinced of Djalali's innocence. A petition set up by Hakan Altintas, a supporter in Turkey, asks the Iranian government to let Djalali come home; friends and colleagues are also raising awareness about his case on a Facebook page.

"Ahmadreza is passionate about science," says Ives Hubloue, the head of VUB's Research Group on Emergency and Disaster Medicine. "He's not interested in politics. We don't believe he would do anything at all" to undermine the Iranian government.

The petition says that Djalali, who has a wife and two children aged 14 and 5, has serious health issues after losing 18 kilograms during a hunger strike that he began on 26 December 2016.

Djalali, 45, was arrested last April by the security forces of Iran’s Ministry of Information while en route from Tehran to the city of Karaj and was taken to Evin Prison in northwest Tehran, according to the petition. Worried that international publicity might make his situation worse, Djalali's family initially told his colleagues that he was in a coma after a car accident, Hubloue says. VUB and CRIMEDIN didn't learn that he had been imprisoned until October 2016, and even then, the family initially asked that his case not be publicized. 

Djalali studied medicine at the University of Tabriz in Iran and obtained a Ph.D. in disaster medicine, the study of health care management during large-scale emergencies, at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. He also earned a master's degree from a program in disaster medicine jointly organized by CRIMEDIN and VUB. Now, he's a professor in the same program and a scientist. His research focuses on how hospitals can best prepare for events with large numbers of casualties, including natural disasters and terrorist attacks, Hubloue says.

Just what he has been accused of is unclear. "Ahmadreza has informed his family in Iran that he was forced to sign a confession, but the content is unknown," says the petition. "His family has been informed that the investigation relates to an issue of ‘national security.’ They have no evidence against him, but they are continuing to keep him."

Hubloue says the charges are apparently related to Djalali's international contacts. The joint masters program draws students and professors from countries around the world, he says, including the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. "That could have something to do with it." But any contacts with colleagues from countries that Iran might see as adversarial would have been solely about the science of saving lives, he says. "We don't believe he did anything wrong," Hubloue says. "Let him go. Let him do his work. We need him."