Iran Detains Two Veteran HIV Physicians, Calling Them "National Security Threats"

An Interview With Joseph Aman, Human Rights Watch

I am here with Joe Aman of Human Rights Watch. I just sat in on a press conference about the two HIV physicians who have been detained in Iran.

Can you please tell us a little bit about what is going on with this case? You mentioned that they were detained at the end of June.

That's right. Kamiar Alaei and Arash Alaei are two Iranian physicians who were involved in the response to HIV/AIDS. Specifically, they worked on expanding harm reduction in Iran, doing very important pioneering work as part of the Iranian government's response to the most important part of the epidemic in Iran, which is among injecting drug users.

Joe Aman
Joseph Aman

They worked for over 15 years, attended a number of international AIDS conferences and had contacts with international organizations. Kamiar had also come to the U.S. to study for a master's degree in public health.

On the 20th of June and 21st of June, both of the brothers were detained and not heard from for a month; their family members didn't know where they were. The international community found out about this and started asking questions to find out why they were detained, and what the charges were. We're only finding out now: Just two days ago, the deputy prosecutor from Tehran stated that the brothers were detained because of national security threats and that they had used their international traveling contacts as part of an effort to overthrow the government.

But the community believes that is not true. They're not involved in politics. They've been involved in HIV for 15 years. We have no reason to believe that they were planning on overthrowing the government.

That's right. There's no evidence that they've been involved in politics in any way. The charges that have been stated are completely unspecific. There's no credible evidence that's been presented at this time and the brothers have been unable to access legal services, so they don't have contact with their lawyers. They haven't been able to review any specifics of the charges against them or respond to them.

What is the sentiment in Iran about drug use? Could this be connected somehow with their work in harm reduction?

There isn't any evidence of that. Iran has gotten a lot of international acclaim for very progressively responding to the AIDS epidemic and putting in place harm reduction. There doesn't seem to be a wider crackdown against harm reduction. There just seems to be a very specific persecution of these two individuals.

What can people do if they're interested in voicing their concern about this situation?

We've started an online petition, which is at, to put forward their case; to ask the Iranian government to release them; and to allow them to have basic human rights standards and protections while they're being detained.

Do we have any information about how they're being treated while they're detained?

We really have none. They've been held incommunicado. We don't know what's going on. We've been in touch with people in Iran to try and find out, but it's part of a strategy to keep them out of any contact so that, on their side, they're not even likely sure that anyone knows they've been detained.

I've spoken with past Iranian activists who have been detained who said that just the idea of being in prison and not being sure if anyone is aware of their detention is an incredibly emotionally difficult experience.

One of the Iranians who I've worked with in the past told me that a guard had let him know that the international community was raising his case. It led to an incredible sense of spirit and hope for him that this information was being received out in the wider world.

How many people have signed on to the petition?

We recently started the petition and within just a handful of days we already have over 2,000 people from all over the world signing on to this -- at the highest levels of international HIV physicians and also at the very grassroots levels of people who've heard about the case and want to express their support.

Do we have anyone who's in a high-profile position who has come out and made some type of statement about this?

The International AIDS Society, the organizers of this conference, have put out a statement saying that the brothers should be released immediately. During the conference, more and more plenary speakers are going to be discussing their case and asking the Iranian government for their release.

Thank you for talking with us.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

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