By Olivia Ward
If a woman in Iran can have it all, Maryam Malekpour came close.
At 27, the striking, dark-haired mechanical engineer had a university degree, a reliable job at a Tehran oil and gas company, a husband, a devoted family and a lively circle of friends. Days were a mellow round of work, swimming, tennis and hanging out in the city.
But all that changed on Oct. 4, 2008, when her brother, Canadian resident Saeed Malekpour, vanished into a dark vortex that would drag Maryam down into its depths and alter her life forever.
What awaited Saeed was a six-year ordeal of kidnapping, torture, rigged trials, death sentences, repeals and imprisonment at the hands of Iran’s ruthless security services. Now aged 39, he is serving a life sentence in Evin Prison on widely decried charges of masterminding an Internet pornography network and, more sweepingly, “corrupting the earth.”
Maryam, meanwhile, was forced to run for her life without a home, family or country, afraid to speak out for fear that disclosing her own ordeal would worsen Saeed’s. Now in Canada, and preparing to lead a campaign for his release, she is telling her story for the first time.
“Sometimes you think things can’t get worse, but they do,” Maryam says, from her home in Edmonton, half a world away from Tehran. Her voice on the phone is shaky, and at times she is on the edge of tears. Some of the trauma is tamed now, but many nights it still claws her from her sleep.
Saeed, the eldest of five siblings, was her closest brother, best friend and mentor. He was the one to whom his little sister brought her growing pains: a brilliant scholar and problem-solver whose computer skills earned him the nickname “The Genius.” Saeed admired Maryam’s quick mind and he was the role model who inspired her to study engineering.
When Saeed married and immigrated to Canada in 2004, the two kept in close touch by phone and email, and Maryam looked forward to his visits. But the fall of 2008 was different: their father had a rapidly advancing brain tumour and a short time to live.
Saeed’s arrival — although weighted with sadness — was a relief for Maryam. In his absence, she was the mainstay of the family, keeping up her mother’s spirits and holding the grieving family together.
What happened next struck like forked lightning.
“The day after Saeed arrived I talked to him around noon and everything was fine,” Maryam says. “But at night my mother phoned me, really worried. She’d been calling and calling him and there was no answer.”
The answer came shortly before midnight. “Five huge guys came to mom’s house without any ID or authorization. They went straight to the bedroom and took away everything of Saeed’s. They took his laptop, even some vitamins he brought for mom.”
The men refused to answer questions, but said Saeed was “in a good place.” Then they left the house. For two weeks the desperate family reached out to every contact who might help to find Saeed, but without success. It would be weeks before they knew that he had been arrested, and four months before they were allowed to visit him.
“I kept asking myself, ‘What did he do?’” Maryam says. “He was always a quiet guy, doing his job, and not interested in politics. He left Iran to keep on studying and get his PhD and find a good job in Canada.”
What Maryam didn’t know was that Saeed was caught in a web of intrigue spun by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, to trap, punish and repress the growing cohort of Internet users. It was a time of mounting tension leading up to the 2009 re-election of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — and the “Green Revolution” protests that would see thousands arrested and dozens killed.
Iran’s security forces viewed the Internet, and especially social media, as morally and politically subversive, and were building a squad of cyber police to counter them. They also looked on émigrés as traitors who were working with foreign agents against the clerical regime.
Saeed ticked both those boxes. Awaiting Canadian citizenship, he was taking advantage of his stellar computer skills to support himself as a freelance computer programmer while preparing to take a postgraduate degree in engineering at University of Victoria in B.C. He prided himself on developing algorithms and writing codes that he would sell to clients. Unknown to him, the stage was set for a terrifying drama that had no end.
“My arrest resembled an abduction,” Saeed said later, in a letter that was smuggled from prison. “I was handcuffed, blindfolded and placed in the back of a sedan.”
The torture began, he said, at the interrogation centre: “most of it was by a group. Several individuals with fists, cables and batons struck and punched me. They would flog my head and neck. Sometimes they used extremely painful electrical shocks that would paralyze me temporarily. Once they stripped me while I was blindfolded and threatened to rape me with a water bottle.”
Their aim was to force Saeed to sign papers he was unable to see or read — documents implicating him in a western-sponsored plot to corrupt the Islamic Republic by spreading pornography through the Internet. Then they tried to make him read a prepared “confession” in front of a video camera. “I lost consciousness several times,” he wrote. “Each time they would wake me up by splashing water on my face and continue with the torture.”
Half his body was paralyzed, he wrote, he could barely walk and one ear was bloodied. The torture would go on intermittently for more than a year, and during one session his teeth were broken and his jaw dislocated when he was kicked in the face. For 320 days, he was kept in solitary confinement — considered a form of psychological torture — and denied medical attention.
Still his tormentors persisted, hoping to get the admission that would publicly humiliate Saeed, convict him and ensure his execution as a warning to others who viewed “immoral” or political websites. After months of physical and psychological abuse he was forced to recite what he later called a spurious confession, the final step to conviction in a Revolutionary Court, which accepted no defence and quickly condemned him to death.
While her brother endured torture, Maryam struggled against emotional breakdown. After Saeed’s arrest her mother was inconsolable, her father close to death. Friends distanced themselves and her anxious husband urged her to stay away from Saeed.
Her first prison visit, four months after his detention, left her weak and shaken. “I couldn’t even recognize him,” she said. “He had a full beard and he looked so scared. He didn’t seem like the same person.”
But the worst was to come.
“My father’s funeral was on the first day of Nowruz (the Persian New Year in March 2009.) Most of the guests had gone, and then we heard Saeed’s voice on TV.
“It was like a nightmare. He was saying awful things against himself — that western countries gave money to spread corruption to the Iranian people, and he got software from the U.K. to hack computers so he could do that.
“My brother Hamid was speechless and shaking. My mother had a heart attack. I just felt paralyzed. I couldn’t move or think. I told my niece to take her to the hospital. At that moment I couldn’t cope.”
Although the family, like many Iranians, knew the authorities routinely use forced confessions as propaganda, they also understood it was the first step toward a death sentence. Ten months later, Saeed was brought to court and condemned.
For Maryam it was a turning point. The unfair trial and court’s rejection of the smuggled letter that detailed the torture, false accusations and forced confession, convinced her to fight back. She began a media campaign to free Saeed, drawing alarming attention from the security services. Under intense pressure, her marriage crumbled. Sick with fear for Saeed, she could barely register the peril that faced her.
“I was desperate to help because Saeed could be executed at any time. Sometimes I gave five interviews a day to the international media, in Persian. Then they put my name on the (security service) website. They called me a liar and threatened me. It was very scary, but I was ready to go to jail.
“Saeed was my dearest friend. Without him, I felt that I had nothing.”
Maryam’s campaign succeeded in focusing worldwide attention on Saeed’s case and his execution was stayed temporarily. He was tried again, and once more sentenced to death.
By August 2012 Maryam knew her days in Iran were numbered. She had ignored a summons to Evin Prison, knowing it would be a trap. In the clerical regime it is common practice to put pressure on prisoners by arresting and abusing their relatives, but Maryam was in additional danger: she had already fallen afoul of the authorities.
When Saeed warned her in a phone call that he had been shown all her interviews, and was told that she was under threat, it was urgent for her to exit Iran.
Sometimes, Maryam learned, life imposes unbearable choices. And this was the most wrenching of her life.
“I booked a tour of Turkey, before they had a chance to stop me from leaving the country,” she said. “I took very little with me, to avoid suspicion. But I knew I could never return.”
Leaving her distraught family and most of her possessions behind, she entered the world of stateless refugees, thousands of whom had fled the killing fields of Syria. The UN refugee agency in Ankara was mobbed by traumatized people who lined up for weeks and months in the hope of obtaining the crucial registration papers that would allow them to move on to other countries.
For Maryam, the destination was clear. “I knew I had to go to Canada. That was where Saeed had lived, and he loved the country. I’d heard so much about it that I felt I already knew it.”
She had no time for a lengthy bureaucratic process. Iran has many tentacles abroad, and sends agents to infiltrate sites where refugees congregate. By now, Maryam knew, she would be on its wanted list and at risk of kidnapping, or worse.
“In Turkey, I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t trust anyone there,” she said. “I was afraid to say my own name.”
She contacted Maryam Nayeb Yazdi, a Toronto-based human rights campaigner and founder of the Persian2English website, who had worked with her to publicize Saeed’s case on social media. With her help, and that of other Canadian advocates for Iranian rights, Maryam’s plight reached the office of then-Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.
The Harper government had spoken out against Saeed’s death sentence and imprisonment, and his case was well known in Ottawa. Recognizing the danger Maryam faced as long as she lingered in Turkey, Kenney issued a special permit that allowed her to enter Canada in November 2012.
“Even on the plane I was afraid that something bad could happen,” she recalls. Her destination was Vancouver, close to Victoria, where Saeed had lived until his arrest. There she hoped to settle, find a job and wait for his return, all the while avoiding anything that could attract the attention of the Iranian regime.
But the relief of her safe arrival soon gave way to a dark night of guilt, fear and homesickness.
In Evin Prison, Saeed was under a second death sentence, and Maryam was tormented by the knowledge that she could do nothing to help him. Without her steadying influence, her family was adrift. Burdened by the need for secrecy, and cut loose from everything and everyone she knew, she forced herself to get through each day, studying English and watching the seemingly endless rain.
“I felt useless,” she said. “Sometimes I would think, ‘Why not just go back to Iran, even if they put me in jail?’”
While grateful to be in Canada, she was also in legal limbo. Officially she was not a refugee, her permit to remain in the country was temporary, and although renewable, gave her no status or stability. With her money and possessions in Iran gone forever, she hunted for any job she could find, and at first survived only on a small fund opened by Amnesty International.
On the invitation of friends of Saeed, she moved to London, Ont., and found a rare internship in Western University’s engineering department. But as a pipeline specialist with experience in one of the world’s major oil-producing countries, she knew her future would lie in Alberta.
Even in Edmonton, where she now works, lack of permanent residency has held her back from resuming the promising career that was shattered by her sudden flight. Nor could she afford to pay the fees of a foreign student and enrol in a Canadian master’s degree to better her career chances.
That could change this fall if Immigration Canada grants her residency when her temporary residence status runs out in October. “We understand that (Maryam) Malekpour is anxious to gain permanent status and we look forward to the finalization of her case,” it said in an email to the Star.
But even as Maryam struggles to find her balance, fate has aimed a new blow: her brother Hamid was diagnosed with cancer and her widowed mother is too ill and overwhelmed to cope. Under Iran’s sanctions-shredded economy, the cost of his treatment is unaffordable.
In spite of Maryam’s almost unbearable burden of stress, Saeed was always uppermost in her mind. Since his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in December 2012, she has been awaiting a time to break her silence. This month she will launch a new campaign for his release.
Ottawa has signalled its support.
“Canada remains deeply concerned for the well-being of Saeed Malekpour and we continue to advocate on his behalf through all available channels,” said Adam Hodge, a spokesperson for Foreign Minister John Baird.
“Iran consistently denies fair treatment and due process to all those in its prisons and before its courts. Canada will always hold the Iranian regime to account as long as it continues to flagrantly disregard its legal and human rights violations.”
Maryam’s ultimate hope is that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — who holds the power of life and death in the Islamic Republic — will focus attention on Saeed’s plight and release him.
“There is no evidence against Saeed,” she says. “He is absolutely innocent and he has been held in prison and tortured. That should be investigated. The Supreme Leader commuted Saeed’s death sentence to life imprisonment. I hope that now he will find it in his heart to order him released.”
For the Malekpours, suffering has come down like a waterfall. And mercy has arrived, if at all, in tiny drops.
“I keep wanting answers,” says Maryam. “Why Saeed? Why my brother? Why does he deserve to be treated like this?”