January 20, 2009
On Monday, the state-run IRNA news agency confirmed that two prominent Iranian AIDS physicians were sentenced to prison for allegedly taking part in a US-backed plot to overthrow the country's Islamic government. The conviction of brothers Arash and Kamyar Alaei baffled human rights activists, who said the doctors were apolitical and doing innovative HIV prevention work in Iran.
IRNA said the Alaeis were leading a CIA-funded effort to recruit other scientists, doctors, and professionals to incite a "soft overthrow." "They aimed at creating social crisis, street demonstrations, and ethnic disputes," the general director of the Intelligence Ministry's counterespionage unit told the news agency.
Sarah Kollach of the Massachusetts-based Physicians for Human Rights disputed the allegations. She said the Alaeis are committed to their HIV work, running a clinic in Tehran and conducting HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment programs. They focus especially on at-risk groups, such as prostitutes and drug users.
"We don't know why they were targeted," said Kollach. "Most of their presentations were about innovative work in Iran on HIV prevention. If anything, Iran should have been excited that something positive like this was coming from Iran."
The brothers' attorney, Masoud Sahfii, said their prosecution appears to have less to do with their AIDS work than with their US contacts. The Alaeis traveled extensively to international AIDS conferences, and Kamyar has been pursuing a doctorate at the State University of New York-Albany School of Public Health. In 2006, the brothers attended a conference in Colorado sponsored in part by the US State Department, but did so with the knowledge of the Iranian government, said human rights campaigner Hadi Ghaemi.
The length of the Alaeis' sentences has not been made public. Sahfii said he will appeal the convictions.