Fears for German man on death row in Iran as his US family say 'Biden is failing us'

The father of two has been kept in solitary confinement for more than two years and handed a death sentence on a spying conviction he denies

Gazelle Sharmahd is fighting for the release of her father Jamshid Sharmahd, a US resident who is on death row in Iran. Photo: Gazelle Sharmahd
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The daughter of a US resident on death row in Iran says the Biden administration is failing her father by distancing itself from his case as he awaits execution.

Jamshid Sharmahd, 68, has been detained by the regime since July 2020 after being convicted of spying and “corruption on earth” during what his family say were “show trials in a kangaroo court”.

The human rights activist, who holds dual Iranian-German citizenship and American residency, has been sentenced to death in his country of birth.

He has shown signs of torture, his daughter said, including missing teeth, facial bruising and difficulty walking.

Before he was captured, Mr Sharmahd, an outspoken critic of the hardline Iranian regime, ran a satellite radio station that offered people a space to voice their views on authorities.

‘I will scream as loud as I can to save my father’

Speaking to The National from her home in Los Angeles, California, his daughter Gazelle Sharmahd, 41, pledged to “scream as loud as I can” and not give up in her efforts to pressure the US and Germany to intervene to stop her father being killed.

Her mission has become even more pressing since Iran’s execution of British-Iranian citizen Ali Reza Akbari last week, which drew condemnation from the UK government. The former Iranian defence minister had been convicted of spying.

Ms Sharmahd said her campaign is growing more urgent by the day.

“We are very, very worried about him,” she said of her father. “The conditions of detention are so horrific that we worry he may not survive that. He is on death row now.

“I am trying to scream as loud as I can and take every opportunity to talk about his case.

“Unfortunately, the US government has failed us so far. We hope that will change.

“He has foreign citizenship and the regime uses these people ― dual nationals ― as bargaining chips. We have seen that with Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori. They use them to get whatever they want from the West.

“We said [to the regime’s lawyers], ‘what can we do to save him?’ They said, ‘nothing, the German government has to talk to us’.”

“They’re not even hiding the fact that they are using him to get something from Germany,” she added, suggesting they are hoping to secure a prisoner exchange.

The mother of one, with her brother, mother and wider family, has spent the past two and a half years appealing to the US and German governments to use their leveraging power to secure the release of Mr Sharmahd.

More than 80,000 people have signed a petition urging German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock to intervene in the case to “save a human life”.

In a statement to The National, Germany's Foreign Office said its staff and those in the embassy in Tehran “have been campaigning for consular access to Mr Sharmahd for quite some time”.

“Iran consistently denies this ― as it does in principle with detainees with German-Iranian citizenship,” the statement said.

“The German embassy in Tehran has repeatedly advocated monitoring the trial of Mr Sharmahd. Time and again, however, German diplomats were turned away at the court in Tehran.

“Beyond the question of consular access, the Federal Foreign Office is also making the case very clear to Iran. We have repeatedly made it clear to Iran that we oppose the death penalty under all circumstances. It's cruel, it's demeaning and it's inhuman.”

The US government has been contacted for comment.

Since the death of Mahsa Amini last September, Iran has faced the largest anti-government protests in 20 years. Ms Amini, 22, was arrested by the morality police after wearing her hijab “inappropriately” and died in hospital shortly afterwards. Her family say she was tortured but an Iranian coroner said her death was due to an underlying illness.

The incident unleashed overwhelming amounts of pent-up anger among millions of Iranians spanning class, gender and generations, leading to demonstrations across the nation. In response, the authorities used fear and force, firing metal and plastic pellets into crowds. Hundreds of people have reportedly been blinded. Thousands of peaceful protesters have been arrested and tortured and at least four men executed over their involvement in the rallies.

The violence has led to clarion calls in the West for governments to designate Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organisation. Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission President, this week voiced support for such a move at the World Economic Forum.

The UK also appears to be inching towards taking the step, as MPs last week unanimously voted for a motion urging the government to put the IRGC in the same category as Al Qaeda and ISIS. Bob Blackman, the Conservative politician who tabled the resolution, told The National that it is a question of when, not if, the UK will follow in the direction of the US.

“London is one of the world’s financial capitals and if government can sequester the group’s assets it will severely damage it,” he said.

“I would hope that we could operate jointly with the United States and if we could convince the Germans and the French as well to jointly [work with us] so that we could literally seize all their assets.”

Ms Sharmahd hopes the global outrage over Iran’s treatment of civilians will raise her father's profile and prompt western governments to exert enough pressure on Tehran to convince them to change course.

UK considers proscribing Iran’s Revolutionary Guards

FILE PHOTO: Members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) attend an IRGC ground forces military drill in the Aras area, East Azerbaijan province, Iran, October 17, 2022.  IRGC / WANA (West Asia News Agency) / Handout via REUTERS / File Photo

Assassination attempt in LA

As a young man who had been educated abroad, Mr Sharmahd held a forward-thinking world view and values based on human rights that did not align with the insular nature of the hardline regime in his homeland.

After incurring grave risk to his safety by speaking out, he fled the country after the 1978-1979 Iranian revolution.

He settled in Germany with his wife and a young Gazelle and within a few years, they had welcomed a son, Shayan.

After relocating to Los Angeles in 2003, they settled into the city’s large Iranian diaspora community.

Determined to use his skills to help those in his homeland, Mr Sharmahd built a website for a California-based Persian language TV station to provide a platform to share archived videos.

The Iranian regime was incensed by the site, which carried criticism of its conduct, and a “massive cyber attack” revealed the creator of the site as Mr Sharmahd.

Exposed, he was left vulnerable to attacks. What happened next, his daughter said, sent shock waves through the family, who had been living in relative peace in the hills of the City of Angels.

“In 2009 they sent an assassin to LA to assassinate my dad,” she recalled. “That was the first time that we really felt the regime wanted to kill my father.

“The regime likes to target people who work against it and they started harassing my dad.

“They posted a picture of his passport on state TV and called him an enemy of Iran. They called him a spy for Mossad, the CIA, the FBI.

“Naively I said, ‘why do you do this?’ He said, ‘if you don’t do it, will someone else?'

“Once I had my daughter, I understood what he meant. There are not many people who have done the right thing, what he did ― trying to make the world a little bit better.”

After evading the attempt on his life, rather than disappear into the shadows, Mr Sharmahd pushed forward with his work. He established a satellite radio station that could be picked up by people in Iran, offering them a space to voice their concerns over the regime’s actions.

Ms Sharmahd said her father managed to conduct business in India and travel to Europe, skirting attempts by the Iranian regime to “lure him” towards the country.

But things took a turn for the worse in July 2020, when he disappeared while flying to Mumbai.

After a few days, his relatives received a message saying, “I am OK, I will contact you”, which they suspected was either from another party or their father acting under duress.

Sentenced to death

Their worst fears were realised weeks later when the family patriarch appeared on Iranian state TV with a swollen face and a blindfold over his eyes, “confessing to crimes that he did not commit”.

“That’s when we found out that my dad was kidnapped,” Ms Sharmahd said. “To know that they can just kidnap people and nobody can do anything about it.

“They had a forced confession from him.”

He has since been kept in solitary confinement at an undisclosed location in Iran, she said, and been subjected to several “show trials” in which he was charged with “corruption on earth” and sentenced to death.

The regime also maintains he was involved in a 2008 mosque bombing in Iran that killed 14 people — a charge he denies.

“They started to parade him as a criminal and a spy,” she said. “It’s not a real court. It’s a kangaroo court. There is no rule of law.”

Videos of the trials, in which he did not have legal representation, showed a gaunt-looking Mr Sharmahd who appeared to have lost up to 20 kilograms since the time of his capture. He also showed signs of missing teeth and had difficulty walking and breathing.

He is in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease and is being denied medication, his family say.

Despite the threats her father faces, Ms Sharmahd is still clinging to the hope that he will be released and finally get to meet his two-year-old granddaughter.

“We have lived with this threat for so long that I’m used to looking over my shoulder,” she said.

“If I didn’t have hope I would have given up.

“My father always told me: ‘It’s not about the outcome. You do something because it’s the right thing to do. The most important thing is that you try’.”

Updated: January 18, 2023, 3:22 PM