From his home in Edmonton, Iranian-Canadian tech whiz Behdad Esfahbod recalls a terrifying ordeal that sent him to Iran’s most notorious prison, Evin, and the journey home that reads like a spy novel.
It started in early January, the software engineer formerly of Facebook said, when he made his regular trip to Tehran to visit his elderly father and family.
In an interview with Global News, Esfahbod said he was on his way to visit friends on Jan. 15 when he was approached by four plainclothes officers.
He said he froze when he saw the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps badges and a warrant for his arrest.
“I realized there is no point in resisting. There is nothing I could do,” he said. “What could I do? Run away? They would shoot me. If I (didn’t) cooperate, I (would) just disappear in history.”
The 38-year-old, who’d been earning about $1.5 million a year, said he was taken to Tehran’s Evin prison, and thrown into solitary confinement.
He said he was left blindfolded, threatened, and interrogated daily for a week in horrifying conditions.
Esfahbod said he quickly learned that he was wanted not for his programming skills or contacts in the tech industry, but for his loose connections to a small number of activists in North America who help Iranians living in Iran bypass the country’s strict internet censorship.
He said his captors dug through his devices and downloaded private information from his social media accounts, and eventually, after seemingly relentless mental abuse that was difficult for him to describe, told him they believed his claims that he was not actually a covert internet activist.
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But before he could be released, he said, the officials told him he must agree to act as a spy and relay information on his acquaintances in the Iranian diaspora.
“I said yes,” Esfahbod said. “I figured what my options were. I agreed without hesitation because I knew I wanted to get out and share this story.”
Trauma follows even after leaving Iran
Esfahbod said he posted bail and left Iran a few days later. But back at home, he said he was shattered.
“All my life fell apart,” he said. “I couldn’t work anymore. I went on and off medical leave. My marriage fell completely apart. My partner was traumatized even worse than I was.”
In mid-June, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps attempted to contact him on social media. He said he ignored their messages, though they kept trying via other methods and even contacted his sister.
With his life essentially derailed, Esfahbod said it became his mission to tell his story and posted his account on the website Medium.
The blog post gained major traction online within the Iranian community, with a vast majority showing their support and applauding him for speaking out.
Officials with Iran’s United Nations Mission in New York have not responded to Global News’ request for an interview or to verify Esfahbod’s claims. Facebook has also not responded to Global News’ request for comment either.
Internet censorship in Iran
It’s a story that Negar Mortazavi said has likely happened to many others, but few have had the courage to go public.
The Washington, D.C.-based journalist and frequent contributor to the BBC and the Independent newspaper in London said internet freedom is at the heart of Esfahbod’s capture.
She pointed to an internet blackout in Iran during anti-government protests in November that made it nearly impossible for demonstrators to post video clips in real time.
“Internet freedom can be a scary thing when you are trying to hide the truth from your population,” Mortazavi said.
She applauded Esfahbod: “(He’s) paving the way for other non-political Iranians who might be subject to similar experiences to go public, talk and potentially stop this kind of behaviour.”
Gissou Nia, a human rights lawyer and non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, agreed that Esfahbod’s bravery and the cost to himself and his family is precedent-setting.
“This is a calculus that anyone with dual nationality who travels back and forth to Iran must make: Are my activities – however seemingly benign to me – going to attract the attention of the security forces and make me a target for arrest, interrogation and detention — or worse?” said Nia.
Esfahbod said life won’t ever be the same.
Even though he still suffers from psychological scars, he said he wants to be a voice for Iranian dual-nationals who don’t feel they can call attention to the lack of freedoms in that country.
“That’s why I am doing this. I want to contribute my own voice and story to that narrative,” he said.