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Zarif Reiterates Call For Prisoner Swap As US Sanctions Afkari Judge, Others

As the United States announced sanctions against several Iranian institutions and officials, including one of the judges who sentenced 27-year-old wrestling champion Navid Afkari to death, Iran’s Foreign  Minister Javad Zarif has reiterated that Tehran is prepared to swap imprisoned dual nationals for Iranians in jail abroad.

The United States on Thursday blacklisted several Iranian officials and entities over alleged gross violations of human rights, including slapping sanctions on a judge it said was involved in the case of an Iranian wrestler sentenced to death.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a statement said the United States imposed sanctions on Judge Seyyed Mahmoud Sadati, Judge Mohammad Soltani, Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court of Shiraz, and Adel Abad, Orumiyeh, and Vakilabad Prisons.

U.S. Special Representative for Iran and Venezuela Elliott Abrams said the sanctions targeted a judge who sentenced Iranian wrestler Navid Afkari to death. Pompeo said Sadati, a judge of Branch 1 of the Shiraz Revolutionary Court, reportedly oversaw one of Afkari's trials.

"The U.S. is committed to holding accountable those who deny freedom and justice to people of Iran and later today the United States will announce sanctions on several Iranian officials and entities including the judge who sentenced Navid Afkari to death," Abrams said during a hearing at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The wrestler was executed earlier this month after being convicted for the fatal stabbing of a security guard during anti-government protests in 2018, Iranian state media reported.

Also blacklisted was Adel Abad prison, where Pompeo said the wrestler reported being tortured by Iranian officials, and Vakilabad prison, where U.S. citizen Michael White was detained.

Numerous flaws in the case have been alleged by Afkari’s family and their lawyers, while United Nations human rights experts found it “deeply disturbing that the authorities appear to have used the death penalty against an athlete as a warning to its population in a climate of increasing social unrest.”

The US sanctioned two Iranian judges in December 2019, both of whom sat in revolutionary courts. It accused one of these judges of sentencing over 100 people to jail or death for political reasons.

European states have been vocal in criticizing the execution of Afkari, with the United Kingdom, France and Germany all summoning the Iranian ambassador in protest over human rights violation.

Meanwhile, with dozens of dual nationals held in Iranian jails, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has told the Russian news agency Sputnik that Tehran is prepared to swap all of them for Iranians jailed in other countries.

Zarif said during a visit to Moscow on Thursday: “We are not prepared to negotiate with the US government, so we have asked the Swiss Embassy in Tehran as the US interest section, to let the US and other countries know that are prepared for a prisoner swap with those countries that wish to play a positive part in this regard.”

Zarif stressed that no US nationals were in jail in Iran, but admitted that there are “a number of dual nationals.” He added: “We are prepared to swap the dual nationals in jail in Iran with all those in jail in the United States or [in] other countries due to political pressure by the US government.”  

Earlier in this week, Zarif had told a video conference hosted by the Foreign Relations Council in the US that Tehran was prepared for a “total prisoner swap with America.” During the same session, referring specifically to the Afkari case, Zarif claimed Iran’s judiciary was independent and that the government could not intervene in its decisions. Zarif’s remarks stirred a controversy in the US media and social networks alleging a double standard.

Media discussion of possible prisoner swaps was encouraged three months ago when Michael White, a US naval veteran, was released from an Iranian jail and US prisons released two Iranian inmates, Majid Taheri and Syrus Askari. US President Donald Trump said at the time that White’s freedom highlighted the possibility of a wider political agreement with Iran.

Pompeo also called on Iran to release Siamak and Baqer Namazi as well as Morad Tahbaz, a conservationist, all dual-nationals with US citizenship in jail in Iran. The British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the Franco-Iranian Fariba Adelkhah are also held in Iran, although Zaghari-Ratcliffe is currently under house arrest at her mother’s home due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Iran has faced criticism for many years from human rights bodies, including the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, for jailing foreigners and dual nationals in search of political gain. In 2016, Iran released five US citizens in a prisoner exchange as its nuclear deal with world powers was implemented.

Iran does not always announce arrests or charges in such cases. Neither does it recognise the rights of dual nationals to consular assistance, although these are enshrined in the UN Vienna Convention. Arrests are routinely made by the Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence organization or by the Ministry of Intelligence, with prisoners facing accusations of espionage or hostile propaganda.

With reporting by Reuters

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