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Worst Fears Of Iranian Dissidents In Afghanistan Realized After Arrests, Killing


Iranian activist and musician Homayoon Zarean (file photo)

After the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, Afghanistan became an unlikely refuge for a small number of dissidents from neighboring Iran.

The Western-backed Afghan government granted asylum to the Iranian nationals, who were allowed to live freely without the fear of political persecution.

But after the Taliban seized power in August 2021, some Iranian dissidents expressed fear that they could be targeted by the militant group. Those worries have been realized after the Taliban allegedly arrested two Iranian dissidents. Another was mysteriously killed earlier this year.

Homayoon Zarean, an Iranian activist and musician, and Kamal Khaki, an Iranian Kurdish activist, were arrested on unknown charges by the Taliban in the Afghan capital, Kabul, on May 14, according to close acquaintances.

A local acquaintance of Zarean, speaking to RFE/RL's Radio Azadi on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said Taliban special forces stormed the house where the two dissidents lived and took them away. He said their current whereabouts were unknown.

The acquaintance said Zarean and Khaki feared that the Taliban would deport them to Iran, where both faced the risk of arrest. He said Khaki had lived in Afghanistan since 2018, while Zarean moved there in 2014. "Zarean was worried that he could be swapped in a prisoner exchange with the Iranian government," he said.

Abdul Nafi Takoor, a spokesman for the Taliban's Interior Ministry, denied that the group had arrested the men.

In an interview with Radio Azadi in September, the 37-year-old Zarean said he had been arrested several times by Iranian authorities due to his opposition to the clerical establishment.

When Zarean moved to Afghanistan, he was temporarily detained on suspicion of being a spy. After his release, he lived in the western city of Herat, near the Iranian border, and then moved to Kabul. His aim was to apply for asylum in the West.

In the Afghan capital, Zarean offered free music, poetry, and theater classes.

But when the Taliban seized control of Kabul on August 15, Zarean said he was concerned that he would be detained and deported. He urged the United Nation to resettle him abroad. "I'm likely to face problems," he said in September. "I'm politically active and I'm a musician. [The Taliban] will surely announce their opposition to music and art."

Months later, his fears were realized. The Taliban banned music in a repeat of the group's brutal rule from 1996 to 2001, when it banned all forms of entertainment.

Samira Hamidi, Amnesty International's South Asia campaigner, said the alleged arrests of Zarean and Khaki follow a familiar pattern of arbitrary arrests under the Taliban.

"The Taliban arrest Afghans in the same way," she told RFE/RL. "They never provide any reasoning and information on why these arrests have taken place. In most circumstances, they deny these arrests and they only provide information when there is a lot of pressure on them."

"This is against international law," she added. "Seeking asylum for protection is a human right and, unfortunately, the Taliban have breached another level of human rights violations when we look at these cases in particular."

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Afghanistan told RFE/RL that it couldn't comment on individual cases for reasons of "confidentiality and data protection."

"Our offices remain accessible to all wishing to discuss particular concerns, but we do not reveal such contacts as a matter of principle," UNHCR said in response to an e-mail.

Third Assassination Attempt Successful?

The alleged arrests of Zarean and Khaki came after the killing of Saadi Khaledi, another Iranian dissident, in the northern province of Baghlan in January.

Saeed Khaledi in January 2022
Saeed Khaledi in January 2022

Khaledi, an Iranian-Kurdish activist, was gunned down by unidentified men. He was buried in Kabul, where he had lived for around two decades.

In a 2019 interview, Khaledi said he had been jailed in Iran for his political activism. He added that he had survived two assassination attempts in Kabul, which he blamed on the Iranian authorities.

Khaledi's family was reportedly pressured by the Taliban not to speak to the media about his death.

Since the Taliban regained power, it has tried to curry favor with Iran, its former foe. The two sides were on the verge of war in the 1990s.

Differences remain between Afghanistan's Sunni Taliban rulers and Iran's Shi'ite clerical regime. Tehran, like the rest of the international community, has yet to recognize the Taliban regime. Clashes have also erupted between Taliban fighters and Iranian security forces along the countries' 900-kilometer border.

But there has also been growing economic and political cooperation between the sides, which have both been hit by U.S. sanctions.

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    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi is one of the most popular and trusted media outlets in Afghanistan. Nearly half of the country's adult audience accesses Azadi's reporting on a weekly basis.

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