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Human Rights

Iran’s Transnational Repression Targets Kurdish Human Rights Defenders

On April 7th, 2024, the Hengaw Organization for Human Rights, a Kurdish-led human rights monitor, issued a warning about “grave threats to the lives of its members posed by the security apparatus of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

“In recent actions by the security forces of Iran, several members of the Hengaw board of directors, including Arsalan Yarahmadi and Jila Mostajer, a resident of Erbil (Hawler), the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, have been directly threatened with forced disappearances and murder by agents of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” the NGO stated.

These are not empty threats. The Iranian government has a long history of targeting Kurdish political and human rights activists, political parties, and human rights organisations using a variety of repressive strategies in order to crush struggles for Kurdish rights.

Among all of these strategies, transnational repression stands out. Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, agents of the Iranian state have reportedly killed or abducted more than 540 dissidents outside of Iranian territory. 380 of these attacks were carried out in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (South Kurdistan or Bashur in Kurdish). 28 occurred in Turkey and North Kurdistan (Bakur in Kurdish).

Not even Europe, supposedly a ‘safe’ region for dissidents and refugees fleeing war and persecution in the Middle East, is fully secure. Two of the most famous examples of Iran’s global network of assassins and terrorists targeting the regime’s opponents abroad are the assassinations of two former leaders of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) Dr. Adburrahman Ghasmelu and Dr. Sadegh Sharafkandi. Ghasemlu was killed on December 28, 1989, in Vienna. Sharafkandi was killed alongside two other members of the KDPI on September 17, 1992, at the Mykonos Greek restaurant in Berlin.

The Iranian regime uses many tactics to advance its unprecedented campaign of transnational repression against Kurdish dissidents, including bombings and other military attacks; intimidation and surveillance; harassment of family members; cyber attacks and online disinformation; extrajudicial killings and kidnappings; legal pressure; and other coordinated and systematic threats and attacks. Speaking to the Kurdish Peace Institute, dissidents and activists described the impact of such threats on their lives, work, and communities.

Bombings and Other Military Attacks

PJAK, Komala, PDKI and other Kurdish political parties in East Kurdistan (Rojhelat in Kurdish; referring to the region of Kurdistan with the borders of modern-day Iran) have engaged in active armed conflict with the Iranian military for decades. The Iranian state regards these parties as a serious threat to its authority and dominance in East Kurdistan. It regularly attacks bases and refugee camps belonging to these parties in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. These attacks not only target the armed forces of the Kurdish parties but also pose a threat to civilians who live close to the parties’ bases and camps and to non-combatant political dissidents.

For instance, on September 28, 2022, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps launched a massive missile attack and airstrike campaign on the KDPI, Komala, and PAK bases in South Kurdistan’s Koya, Altun Kupri, and Zirgwez, in response to the murder of Jina Amini by the Iranian morality police and the calls for general strikes made by Kurdish parties and organizations.

According to Iranian authorities, the strikes were carried out “to avenge terrorist actions in Iran and their presence and involvement in the rebellion in the northwest regions.” However, the attacks resulted in the death of 18 people and the injury of 62 others, with children and non-combatants among the victims.

Intimidation and Surveillance

Kurdish activists and organizations based outside of Iran are frequently the target of monitoring, surveillance, espionage, and other related intimidation tactics carried out by Iranian intelligence agencies, particularly the Ministry of Intelligence and the Intelligence Protection Organization of the IRGC. This may include covert surveillance, tracking the movements of activists, and gathering information on their activities.

A well-organized network of Iranian agents operates in South Kurdistan. This network primarily monitors and collects data about exiled Kurdish activists and organizations from East Kurdistan. Kurdish opposition parties and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) authorities have arrested some of these agents in the past few years. For example, the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK) captured an alleged Iranian agent in the town of Pirde in the South Kurdistan Region in 2019. In addition to spying for the Iranian intelligence service, the agent reportedly intended to sow discord and terror among the peshmerga and party members.

Wahid Roznavard, a young Kurdish man from Mahabad, injured his eye and arm on October 20, 2022, during the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests. Following his injury, the Iranian regime attempted to arrest him. However, he was able to escape to Turkey. After staying there for more than a year, he was finally granted a humanitarian visa by Germany.

“During my residence in Turkey, I was under the Turkish intelligence’s watch and was not able to go out freely. I received countless online threats from Iranian accounts on social media. In order to get more details about me and my whereabouts, they took my brother into custody, tortured him, and took his cellphone. Since then, their cellphones and social media accounts have been under surveillance. I cannot directly contact them unless I create fake accounts and inform them that I am fine,” Roznavard told the Kurdish Peace Institute.

A Kurdish journalist and human rights activist living in Germany, who has worked with Kurdish media in South Kurdistan as well as German and Persian media in Europe since 2005, spoke anonymously to the Kurdish Peace Institute. He described similar threats.

“From 2005 to 2011, while I lived in South Kurdistan, the Iranian regime repeatedly put pressure on my family to go back to Iran or leave South Kurdistan. At the same time, I was told that if I return to Iran or East Kurdistan, I will be granted a pardon and will not face any prosecution. I also received countless threatening emails and unknown phone calls from Iranian intelligence agents. Therefore, I finally had to seek asylum in Germany with the help of Reporters Without Borders,” the activist stated.

“Unknown individuals threatened to kill me on Twitter during the November 2019 protests in Iran and Kurdistan and claimed to know which cafe I usually went to. By the time the protests began in 2022 and 2023, Iranian cyber accounts had targeted me on social media for posting and reporting on the situation in East Kurdistan. I was also notified by the German police about these threats. Additionally, there have been attempts to access my social media accounts and steal my personal data.”

Harassment of Family Members

Iranian authorities often direct threats and harassment towards the family members of exiled activists. This can range from verbal threats to more severe actions such as arbitrary detention, interrogations, and even torture. This puts massive pressure on both activists and their family members and causes trauma.

The Iranian state uses this method to force activists it cannot physically reach to stop their work against the regime or, sometimes, to give away data about the organizations with which they are affiliated. This has been one of the most important cards that the regime plays against Kurds and other dissidents. It is present in nearly all of the cases reviewed.

“Our family members—all of their married and single relatives, parents, brothers, sisters, and fathers—are called to the Iranian security centers every month and interrogated about our whereabouts, movements, way of life, and Hengaw’s operations,” Jila Mostajer, the Hengaw board member who was threatened with disappearance and murder herself, told the Kurdish Peace Institute.

“The pressure has increased significantly, especially in the last four years. Our family members have been arrested and held in solitary confinement for several days, in addition to receiving frequent summonses. For instance, on the anniversary of Jina Amini’s death, my brother was abducted by Iranian intelligence and held captive for two weeks,” Mostajer continued.

“For almost twenty years, I have been an activist in the Kurdish struggle. I was compelled to flee my hometown of Urmia and spend six years living in North Kurdistan before making my way to Germany in 2018. In order to pressure me into ceasing my activism, the Iranian agents repeatedly detained, tortured, and imprisoned two of my brothers during this time. They also threatened to rape my sister and kill my family members on the streets. By making my mother stressed and anxious, these agents also intimidated her. In addition, my family was brutally questioned and intimidated at the border when they came to visit me in North Kurdistan,” said a Kurdish writer, filmmaker, and human rights activist from Urmia, who also wished to remain anonymous.

Farshad Gerdakaneh, a Kurdish athlete, activist, and social media celebrity who uses humour to criticize the Iranian government, claims that the Iranian security services have repeatedly detained his parents, siblings, uncles, and cousins in the past few years and have put pressure on him to stop publishing content critical of the Iranian regime.

Cyber Attacks and Online Disinformation

Iran is known to be a ‘cyber superpower’ with the capability to project cyber threats worldwide. Iranian government-affiliated hackers, or the Iranian Cyber Army, have been known to target Kurdish activists’ social media accounts and websites. Their tactics of choice include phishing attempts, malware attacks, and the use of disinformation to undermine the credibility and activities of activists.

In 2022, the Iranian regime launched a massive cyber campaign against Kurdish human rights activists and organizations that were reporting on the crimes committed by Iranian security forces across Kurdistan, Balochistan, and other parts of Iran during the “Woman, Life, Freedom” uprising.

The Hengaw Organization for Human Rights published thousands of reports, videos and images documenting state brutality against protestors and other Kurdish civilians. Because of this, Hengaw quickly became one of the main sources for international news outlets sharing information about the protests in East Kurdistan and Iran with the world. This made the organization and its members targets of the Iranian regime.

In addition to other attacks and threats, the NGO faced cyber attacks on their accounts and website, leading to the censorship of the social media pages that they use to publicize their work.

The regime is not the only force opposed to Hengaw’s efforts. Hengaw has also faced cyber attacks from nationalist Persian opposition groups, including monarchists, who target the organization’s social media and private messaging. These attacks often label Hengaw and its members as “terrorists,” “separatists,” and “nationalists,” threatening them death, rape, kidnapping, and physical attacks. These groups also publish footage and information regarding Hengaw members’ places of residence and places where they go.

“Several attempts have been made by Iranian authorities to breach my social media accounts. They’ve spammed me — I used to get verification codes on my old phone for Telegram and Instagram, signalling un-authorized login attempts. I eventually changed my phone number and kept it private after reporting these incidents to the police. I receive threats daily, which escalate whenever I post or tweet something. In addition to challenges to confront them in Turkey, there are frequently violent threats of rape and beheading,” said Raman Nasirizadeh, a Kurdish IT specialist, social media activist, and human rights advocate from Marivan, East Kurdistan.

Ultranationalist opposition groups like Pahlavists and Pan-Iranists, mainly based in the diaspora, organize online attacks against Kurdish accounts, organizations, and individuals that are similar to those conducted by regime agents and regime supporters. Behrouz Boochani, an award-winning Kurdish writer who rigorously criticizes Iranian-Persian fascism, supremacy, and racism on X (Twitter) and in the media, has been one of the most prominent targets of these ultra-nationalist Iranian groups. These groups typically target individuals such as Behrouz Boochani, calling him a “Neanderthal Kurd” or using other derogatory and sexist language, accusing him of being a separatist, Mossad agent, or CIA agent, and threatening him with death or rape.

Extrajudicial Attacks

Kurdish activists living abroad have frequently been the target of extrajudicial actions by Iranian operatives. Physical attacks, kidnappings, and assassinations—both attempted and successful— have all been reported. These activities are usually carried out covertly and are often denied by Iranian authorities.

In March of this year, a former political prisoner and poet from Ilam Province named Jakan Baran (Baqer Hosseini) was kidnapped by unidentified individuals on the border between Turkey and Iraq as he attempted to flee to Europe. Baran was a member of Hengaw. Despite efforts by the NGO and Baran’s friends, no accurate information about his condition has been obtained. The people in charge of transferring him refused to give any information. This has led many to fear that Baran has become a victim of enforced disappearance.

On November 16, 2023, in Erbil, the capital of South Kurdistan, Sohrab Rahmati, a Kurdish political activist and member of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region Bar Association, was the target of an assassination attempt carried out by Iranian agents. He survived the attack with injuries. Notably, Rahmati had previously represented families whose relatives were victims of assassinations perpetrated by agents of the Islamic Republic in the Kurdistan Region — including one case where regime perpetrators were convicted.

These incidents do not only occur in South Kurdistan. There have been several similar incidents across Europe for which the Iranian regime has been found directly or indirectly responsible. In July 2020, an incendiary bomb was thrown at the house of Soheila Fors-Kelhur, a Kurdish-Swedish politician and member of Sweden’s Christian Democrats, after she received threatening phone calls referring to her criticism of the Iranian regime. Talking to the media, she stated that “for two days, unknown men called me. They said: “The regime in Iran will deal with you.” The unknown callers threatened to kill her and her family because of her activities against the regime in Iran.

‘Lawfare’ in Democratic Countries

Iran uses its political power in other countries to manipulate democratic legal systems, pressuring these governments to extradite Kurdish activists or restrict their movements internationally. These actions are often based on politically motivated charges or allegations.

One well-known case in which the Iranian government tried to take advantage of its legal power in Europe is that of Raman Nasirizadeh, the human rights activist who reported facing cyber threats.

Nasirizadeh filed for asylum in Denmark six years ago. After taking part in a protest outside the embassy in Copenhagen, he received a legal threat of deportation from the Iranian Embassy. He was charged with “vandalism” in front of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s embassy in an indictment from the Copenhagen Public Prosecutor’s Office.  This indictment was issued when Nasirizadeh was present in front of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Embassy in July 2021, during protests against a water shortage in Khuzestan province in south-west Iran.

Nasirizadeh stressed that he had nothing to do with the incident that was used as justification for the accusation—that is, “painting on the walls of the embassy.” He claimed that he was not aware of these activities prior to the protest and even informed the police in order to keep the gathering under control.

In the notification sent to him in December 2022, it was indicated that “the prosecutor reserves the right to request deportation.” Proposed sanctions included imprisonment and a fine, underscoring the Danish judicial system’s seriousness in handling this case. During the same time period, Iranian security institutions in Marivan had regularly called Nasirizadeh’s family, threatening them with dire consequences due to his activities against the Iranian government.

Iran engages in the same behavior in Iraq, where it is even more powerful. “The Iranian government has repeatedly and formally requested that the governments of Iraq and Kurdistan return us to Iran as suspects. These requests have gone unanswered by these governments,” said Jila Mostajer.

Kurdish activists and their supporters often work to raise awareness, engage in advocacy, and collaborate with international human rights organizations to protect themselves and others from such threats. The responses of host countries, diplomatic initiatives, and legal safeguards are important in ensuring the safety and rights of Kurdish activists residing abroad. However, host countries often fail to protect these activists. Sometimes, they cooperate with the Iranian state by threatening activists with deportation or prison.

Responding to Iran’s Transnational Repression Campaign

Western countries that place a high priority on human rights can and should take measures to shield Kurdish dissidents and activists from Iranian transnational repression. To date, though support for such individuals and organisations has been limited.

“We and our colleagues have not received any support from the Kurdistan Regional Government or any European countries, despite our repeated appeals to countries that respect human rights and to aid organizations for individuals whose lives are in danger,” Jila Mostajer warned.

“For example, we believe that Iran has kidnapped our colleague Jakan Baran, but we have not yet received any help or support to find his location or whereabouts,” she continued.

Despite the complexities of the issue, a stronger response to the threat of Iranian transnational repression is possible. Governments could:

  • Exert pressure on the Iranian government to uphold human rights, including Kurdish rights, using existing diplomatic channels. This pressure can be applied through statements, resolutions, and diplomatic engagements at international forums such as the United Nations.
  • Impose targeted sanctions against Iranian officials who violate human rights, particularly those who target Kurds and engage in transnational repression. Travel bans, asset freezes, and trade restrictions are a few examples of these sanctions that can be implemented. Broad-based sanctions impacting the entire Iranian economy, though, often have a negative impact on Kurdish communities by reinforcing the structural poverty imposed by the regime’s policy of de-development in Kurdish regions.
  • Grant asylum to Kurdish activists who are in danger of being persecuted by the Iranian government. This includes providing speedy asylum processes and ensuring adequate protection for asylum seekers and their families upon arrival.
  • Offer funding and training to Kurdish civil society organisations and human rights defenders. This will allow governments to improve their ability to document human rights violations, promote justice internationally, and aid victims.

International organizations and NGOs also have roles to play in the fight against transnational repression. These organizations can:

  • Follow and publicize conditions inside Iran in order to bring attention to any violations or threats that Kurdish activists or other vulnerable groups in Iran may experience. Publishing reports, planning advocacy campaigns, and interacting with national and international authorities are all possible activities in this scope.
  • Offer legal support to Kurdish activists who are being persecuted. This support can take the form of case documentation, legal representation, and advocacy for their rights in front of national and international courts and tribunals.
  • Support the recognition and defense of Kurdish rights in Iran. These rights may include the right to political representation, linguistic autonomy, cultural autonomy, and other fundamental human rights that Kurds have been denied on the grounds of their ethnicity.

Photo: SAFIN HAMED/AFP via Getty Images

About the Author

Gordyaen Benyamin Jermayi


Gordyaen Benyamin Jermayi is a Kurdish human rights advocate born in Urmia, Rojhelat (East Kurdistan). He is a member of a human rights organization that documents human rights violations in East Kurdistan. Since 2020, he has presented and su…

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