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Man Accuses Iran of Torture Over Conversion From Islam

Lawsuit by immigrant who returned to his homeland says he was brutally punished by the regime for joining the Mormon Church.

September 03, 2003|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

An Iranian American who alleges he was tortured in Iran for converting to the Mormon faith and for allowing mixed dancing at his wedding has filed a lawsuit against the Islamic republic, activists announced Tuesday at a human rights conference in Los Angeles.

Ghollam Nikbin, 56, was whipped with an electric cable on his bare soles, flogged with a leather whip and hung upside-down during interrogation and punishment by Iran's security forces in the mid-1990s, he said this week. He said the torture damaged his kidneys and made walking difficult.

Nikbin told hundreds of Iranian Americans gathered at the Furama Hotel near Los Angeles International Airport that he hoped his lawsuit would make his homeland "ashamed, and they will hear my voice. I want to free my country from these terrorists," he said to a standing ovation.

The conference was held to commemorate the 1988 massacre of political prisoners in Iran.

Nikbin's case represents the first of an expected series of lawsuits against Iran by the Los Angeles-based Mission for the Establishment of Human Rights in Iran. The mission is represented in the case by the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability.

The suit, which seeks unspecified monetary damages, is based on a 1996 law that permits U.S. citizens to sue for injuries suffered through torture and terrorism by Iran and other regimes designated by the State Department as state sponsors of terrorism. The law, which requires that all claims be filed in U.S. district court in Washington, also covers Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Cuba, Libya and North Korea.

The State Department has designated Iran as a country of particular concern, and the department's 2002 annual report on religious freedom discussed particularly severe violations of religious freedom against members of minority faiths in Iran.

Religious minorities, including Bahais, Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews, constitute about 1% of Iran's 66 million people.

"There are terrible abuses in Iran that need to be called to attention: the routine use of torture, the religious intolerance, the lack of freedom of conscience and freedom of expression," said Joshua Sondheimer, an attorney with the San Francisco center, which was founded in 1998 with the support of Amnesty International and a United Nations agency to help torture victims bring legal action against the perpetrators.

Morteza Ramandi, spokesman for Iran's Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York, said he had not yet seen the lawsuit and would not comment until he had. He also declined to discuss general allegations about human rights abuses.

Mohammad Parvin, founder of the Los Angeles-based Iranian human rights organization, said the group is working on at least 25 other claims it hopes to bring against Iran. Parvin, a Rancho Palos Verdes resident and adjunct professor of engineering at Cal State L.A., fled Iran in 1992 after being fired as a university professor for his pro-democracy activities and seeing other scholars arrested and even executed.

For Nikbin, the nightmares began after he moved back to Iran in 1993. He arrived in the United States in 1975 on a scholarship from the shah of Iran to study business management at Long Island University in New York. After the 1979 Iranian revolution that toppled the shah and installed an Islamic theocracy, Nikbin decided to stay in New York.

In 1982, he said, he converted from the Islamic faith of his birth to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after marrying a Mormon woman he had met on a volleyball court in New York. Nikbin said he had not been an observant Muslim, and was attracted to the Mormon Church because of the more honest people. The couple divorced two years later.

Although he became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1991, Nikbin said he returned to Iran two years later because he missed his family. But he said he was unprepared for the more restrictive religious environment that sharply proscribed mingling between women and men. On the night of his wedding to his second wife, Iran's morality police raided his party and arrested more than two dozen guests for mixed dancing, he said. For that transgression, the lawsuit alleges, an Islamic judge ordered him to be severely whipped with 40 lashes.

Nikbin said he was alerted by neighbors that security officials were starting to ask questions about him. He decided to return to the United States in May 1995. But he said he was stopped at the airport, taken to a prison and accused of changing his religionpunishable by death under Iran's Islamic law.

Although Nikbin said he initially denied the charges, the security officials produced his Mormon baptismal certificate.

After that, he said, he was beaten with an electric cable and hung upside-down.

He said that only his family's bribes to Iranian officials saved him from execution. Instead, he was sent to a mental hospital, where he was forcibly injected with unknown drugs.

Thanks to another bribe, he said, he was released in December 1998 after more than three years in detention and returned to the United States.

"When I was first released, I was like a zombie," he said. "But when I arrived back in the United States, I kissed the ground."

With the help of the Mormon Church and U.S. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), Nikbin was able to obtain visas for his wife and daughter to join him a year later. Nikbin asked that the family's residence be kept confidential for fear of retaliation.

But he said he decided to speak out to bring public attention to what Iranian human rights activists say are thousands of cases like his.

"If I go outside and get killed, I don't care," he said. "as long as I can help prevent the Iranian government from destroying other people like me."

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