These Iranian activists fled for freedom. But the regime still managed to find them.
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Iranian dissident Massi Kamari felt helpless when she found out about her elderly parents being harassed by the authorities back home.
She called her mother’s phone in late December, but the person on the other end was a man whose voice she didn’t recognize.
Her parents were inside the offices of Iran’s intelligence service in Tehran. And she was in the French capital, Paris, where she lives.
Kamari knew that the government agents who had been intimidating her family for months wanted only one thing: to speak directly to her about her activism abroad.
“I was thinking: ‘What can I do about this?’ So, I decided to try to record this phone call,” she recalled.
In the recording of the phone call in late December that was obtained by CNN, Kamari can be heard arguing for almost 20 minutes with a man she believes is a member of Iran’s shadowy intelligence service.
“Whatever actions you take against the Islamic Republic, there in France, is a crime,” the man is heard saying. “And your family will answer for it.”
“Sir, my family is only responsible for its own actions,” she responds.
“Listen,” he says. “Your mother will be taken to Evin Prison, at her age. Your sister and your father (will) also be taken to Evin prison too. They will be interrogated.”
“Okay,” she answers calmly. “Take them for interrogation. They have done nothing wrong.”
The 42-year-old is among many Iranians now living in the West who say that Tehran’s terrorizing repression is reaching beyond its borders, to faraway places previously assumed to be safe, in order to crush dissent.
CNN’s request for comment to Iran’s authorities has gone unanswered.
Last year, the country was rocked by a popular uprising that was first ignited in September by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died in custody after being detained by the country’s morality police for allegedly wearing her headscarf improperly.
Months on, the demonstrations have fizzled out amid a growing wave of repression.
Through the end of January, hundreds of protesters have been killed, including at least 52 children, according to Human Rights Watch. At least four young men have been executed at the order of Iranian courts that the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran has called “lynching committees.”
Dissidents abroad have played a key role in Iran’s protest movement, carrying stories of abuse and oppression from the streets of Iran to international news channels and the halls of foreign governments. That bridge to the outside world has been crucial for the protesters amid a near total shutdown of internet services in the country and tight regime control on local media.
Successful lobbying campaigns are credited, in part, with ramped-up sanctions against the Tehran regime from Western governments and international organizations. In an unprecedented move, for example, United Nations member states removed Iran from a key UN women’s rights group in December – which was condemned by Iran.
“Our efforts to promote and protect women’s rights are driven by our rich culture and well-established Constitution,” reads an Iranian government statement.
“The Iranian women and girls are most informed, dynamic, educated and capable in our region and the world, have always strived for their progress and will continue to strive in the same direction despite continued US chronical hypocrisy.”
The organizing power and political sway of the diaspora is exactly why Tehran is expanding the crackdown beyond its own borders, Nazila Golestan, an activist of three decades and co-founder of the opposition organization HamAva, told CNN.
“They are the government. But we are the opposition, and we are numerous,” she explained. “We are everywhere, everywhere and with the internet we have a bridge from the people inside to the people outside.”
Massi Kamari fled Iran for France about four years ago, fearing for her life due to her activism back home.
“When I got here, I thought I can freely express my feelings now. I tried to be the voice of my (suffering) people in Iran,” she explained. “I tried to participate as much as I can in protests.”
But as the protests started picking up steam late last year, she found herself being intimidated again. Her parents in Iran, she said, received repeated calls from the intelligence service for a summoning to their local headquarters.
“I told them, please don’t answer these calls, and please don’t go there,” she said of her conversation with her parents at the time. “But unfortunately, because these threats got worse and worse and because my parents are older, I could not expect them to listen to me and not go. I understood they are under pressure, and it might happen.”
And it did happen. On December 31, Kamari said she received the call from a man she believed to be a member of Iran’s intelligence service, who used her mother’s confiscated phone to reach her. He refused to identify himself, but he made his orders and threats clear.
“It was so hard because I did not know how far these people will go,” she said of the call. “I felt because they were putting pressure on my family and I was not there, I had to respond strongly.”
For now, Kamari says her parents are safe, but she barely speaks to them as a precaution.
Other Iranian exiles with loved ones still back home tell similar stories of their families being used as pawns by the Islamic Republic in order to silence them.
According to a 2021 report by Freedom House, an advocacy group in Washington, DC, Iran engages in transnational repression using tactics including assassinations, detentions, digital intimidation, spyware, coercion by proxy, and mobility controls, among others. The report’s authors noted that these tools have been used against Iranians in at least nine countries in Europe, the Middle East, and North America.
Forty-year-old Sahar Nasseri left Iran as a teenager to study in Sweden, where she now lives and continues to be an outspoken critic of the Islamic Republic. She says her family, too, is constantly harassed by Iran’s intelligence service.
“They (the intelligence service) have created this distance between me and my family, which is mental torture,” she said through tears. “For every single thing I do, every time I appear on TV, every political act that me and my friends take, every time we speak with a government or a political representative, they call my parents.”
Exiled Iranian dissidents say Western sanctions have not ended the campaign of repression and harassment they face for speaking out.
Despite leaving their homeland for distant countries, many say that no place is beyond the regime’s reach. In January, the US Justice Department said it had uncovered a plot to assassinate prominent Iranian dissident Masih Alinejad near her home in Brooklyn, New York. It wasn’t the first time US authorities had foiled an alleged plot against Alinejad.
“This is the second time in the past two years that this Office and our partners at the FBI have disrupted plots originating from within Iran to kidnap or kill this victim for the ‘crime’ of exercising the right to free speech,” the DOJ said in a statement on January 27.
At least three men – the authorities believe are part of an Eastern European crime organization tied to Iran – have been indicted. One was charged with possessing a loaded AK-47 style rifle, found inside a suitcase in his vehicle.
US prosecutors say that a 2021 kidnapping plot was organized by an Iranian intelligence official, an indictment alleged, but Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied any involvement, calling the accusation “baseless and ridiculous,” according to the semi-official news agency ISNA.
Appearing on “CNN This Morning” in January, Alinejad vowed to continue her activism.
“I’m not going to give up,” she said “What scares me (is) that this is happening right now in Iran. I mean these criminals were hired by the Islamic Republic. They were a part of a criminal organization from eastern Europe. So, you see the Islamic Republic itself is a criminal organization. And killing innocent protesters inside Iran, killing teenagers every single day.”
Nasseri and Kamari echo her determination. Three women across three different countries who have defied threats from the Islamic Republic to share their ordeal say efforts to silence them have only made their voices louder and more prominent.
They say they are inspired by the anti-government demonstrations inside their country and by the courage of protesters there in the face of a brutal government crackdown.
“There is nowhere you can be safe,” Kamari said from the site of an anti-Iranian regime protest overlooking the Eiffel Tower in Paris. “But even the week after I received the call (from Iranian intelligence officials), I was out doing my political work. I will not stop my activism because of threats.”