Did Iran Break International Law by Kidnapping a Dissident Journalist?

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Iraqi intelligence agents arrested the dissident journalist Ruhollah Zam and then handed him over to Iranian authorities, an anonymous source in Iraq has claimed. 

Revolutionary Guards announced Zam's arrest on October 14. Speaking to the BBC, the source, who is reported to be part of the Iraqi government, said Iraq’s intelligence service arrested Zam, who has been granted political asylum by France, after he arrived at Baghdad airport. A day later, they handed him over to Iran in accordance with an extradition agreement between the two countries.

The government of Iraq has not officially confirmed or denied the account, so it cannot be classified as an official government statement and remains unverified.  

After the Revolutionary Guards announced Zam’s arrest, his wife Mahsa Razani told IranWire that she did know why he had traveled to Iraq. She said she did not hear from him for 24 hours, and then when he did call, he sounded strange and not like himself. Shortly after the call, she learned of his arrest.

There had been speculations that Zam, who is the founder of the Amad News Telegram channel, was traveling to Iraq to visit the influential Ayatollah Ali Husseini Sistani, the spiritual leader of Shia Muslims in Iraq. This was later confirmed by Shirin Najafi, Zam’s colleague and an administrator of Amad News, but the office of Ayatollah Sistani denied any contact between his office and Ruhollah Zam or any representative of his, an indication that his visit to Iraq might have been for a completely different purpose [Persian link].

However, if the available information about Zam’s arrest are true and confirmed, could his arrest and his transfer to Iran be seen as a case of kidnapping?

The legal definition of “kidnapping” is “an act or instance or the crime of seizing, confining, inveigling, abducting, or carrying away a person by force or fraud, often with a demand for ransom or in furtherance of another crime.” It makes no difference whether the crime is committed by a government or by individuals or groups not associated with any government.

Kidnapping is often committed by blackmailers and insurgent groups and not by governments but there are instances of governments kidnapping too. Governments that adhere to international human rights laws have various legal means at their disposal if they seek to arrest and try an individual who lives in a foreign country.


Ways to Extradite

The most significant of these legal means is to request the extradition of the individual from the country where he or she lives. European countries refuse such requests if they believe that the life of the individual might be in danger if he or she is extradited. France, where Ruhollah Zam lives and has been granted asylum, would not have extradited him to Iran if it had received such a request from the Islamic Republic but the French judiciary could have investigated and taken action if Iran had requested it and had provided France with charges against him that are considered crimes under French or international laws.

Authorities can also ask other countries to arrest and extradite a person if that person travels to those particular countries. The neighboring countries of Iran that have not joined human rights conventions and treaties have no problem with doing so. Human rights laws say that if the extradition of a suspect might result in the violation of that person’s basic rights, including the possibility of torture or of losing life, then the request for extradition must be rejected.

In the past, Iran’s neighbors have extradited suspects and convicted criminals to Iran and Iran has signed extradition treaties with some of them. In the case of Iraq, after Iran issues an arrest warrant, the request for extradition must be officially submitted to the government of Iraq so that it can act on behalf of the Iranian judiciary and arrest the suspect or the convicted criminal. The arrest, however, does not automatically translate into extradition. In cases similar to that of Ruhollah Zam, the Iraqi judiciary must first investigate the legitimacy of Iran’s request and decide whether to extradite or not after it listens to the defense put forward by the detainee.

The US government has repeatedly asked other countries to arrest and extradite Iranian nationals whom it has accused of violating American sanctions on the Islamic Republic, but in a number of cases the courts of the host country have rejected the extradition request following investigations. One example is Nosratollah Tajik, a former Iranian diplomat who was arrested in Britain at the request of the US government. In 2012, the British High Court ruled against extradition to the US and he returned to Iran.

So this means that even if the statements made by the anonymous Iraqi government source are true, the due process of law for extraditing Ruhollah Zam has been violated.

In an interview with the London-based Iran International satellite TV channel, Shirin Najafi said that Zam was supposed to be a guest of Ayatollah Sistani’s office and meet with the ayatollah’s representative. It would appear that certain intermediaries who had convinced Zam that they could be trusted had lured him to Iraq to supposedly meet with Ayatollah Sistani’s representative. However, there was no such arrangement and Ayatollah Sistani’s office has categorically denied any communication or arrangement with Zam.

If this is the case — if this Iranian national was lured from France to Iraq under the false pretense of meeting with Ayatollah Sistani and he was then taken to Iran — it is the same as “carrying away a person by force or fraud” without his consent and, by definition, it amounts to kidnapping under international law.


A Similar Case from History

The case is similar to a case from more three decades ago involving Israel. In 1986 an Israeli technician, Mordechai Vanunu, traveled to Britain and gave The Sunday Times newspaper evidence and photographs of a secret Israeli program to develop nuclear weapons. Britain rejected the Israeli request for his extradition because it was very likely that he would be tortured or even die if extradited.

In an operation the details of which emerged later, a Mossad agent lured Vanunu to Rome after seducing him in London. Since Italy observes European human rights laws, the possibility of extradition from Italy was non-existent. So after the female agent lured him to Italy, he was drugged and abducted and taken to Israel. Regardless of whether the government of Italy knew about it or not, the Israelis had committed the crime of abduction across international borders.

Iran has not made any official announcement or given any details about Zam’s arrest. Islamic Republic officials have not disclosed why the name of Ayatollah Sistani, a revered and important Shia authority, was used to lure Ruhollah Zam, at what point they gained access to him, or how they transferred him to Iran. It is also not clear what roles, if any, France and Iraq played in the affair. Based on existing evidence and the statements made by his wife, the conclusion is that Zam is a victim of what international law terms as kidnapping.

The possibility exists that with the publication of further evidence other conclusions can be made about his arrest. For the moment, the facts and details of Ruhollah Zam’s arrest keep changing.


Related Coverage:

“The Regime Kidnapped my Husband from Baghdad", October 16, 2019

Did the Guards Lure a Dissident Journalist Back to Iran to Arrest Him?, October 14, 2019

The Gameshow Host Behind Violence in Iran, January 6, 2018

Censorship and Self-Censorship During the Protests, December 31, 2017


The opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Iranians Global Network.


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