The Iranian journalist Ruhollah Zam was executed on the morning of December 12, 2020. He was charged with treason and espionage. His family appealed the court decision but this week their appeal was overturned. IranWire spoke to Zam’s Paris-based lawyer, Hassan Fereshtyan, in early December, just a few days before he was hanged in the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran.
On Thursday, October 10 last year, Hassan Fereshtyan told his client, the renegade journalist Ruhollah Zam: "You will never come back!".
Zam turned his gaze away from his lawyer, and from the man who had been assisting him in all his administrative tasks in France for the past eight years. It was around noon that day, and Zam was no longer living in Paris. He was wondering how easy it would be to convince his two bodyguards to let him have lunch with his lawyer and friend in a nearby Iranian restaurant. "If I tell them it’s a business meal, maybe they'll let me go," he had reasoned. But Fereshtyan was in no mood for games.
The two security guards were waiting just outside the small office for this private meeting to end. On arrival, they had been offered coffee from a machine, but only accepted a tightly-sealed bottle of water. "I offered to show them the emergency exits,” Fereshtyan recalls, “but it was pointless as they had had already seen a map of the building before coming.”
On December 2 this year, I met with Hassan Fereshtyan in the same office where he had seen Ruhollah Zam for the last time, before the journalist made his fateful trip to Iraq: a trip from which he now seems unlikely to return. The lawyer spoke in calm, measured tones, until suddenly he became restless and could not keep still. "I banged on the table, like that," he declared, striking the table to show me before repeating the gesture a second time, as if to emphasize his premonition. He stood up, walked all around his desk, and re-enacted the scene again.
The night we met, Fereshtyan’s client's death sentence had not yet been confirmed yet. The verdict from his appeal only came out on December 8. "I am between hope and despair," he confided that day, helplessly. The Iranian Supreme Court was thought to have made a decision several weeks earlier but the reason it was keeping everyone waiting was unclear, and slightly suspect.
We cast our minds back to the month of October 2019 and tried to understand how it was that Ruhollah Zam had reached the unsafe decision to travel to Iraq. The previous month, the exiled journalist and founder of dissident Telegram channel Amad News had called Hassan Fereshtyan to tell him about his plans to travel to Iraq – to meet, he said, with an Iranian cleric who, according to some newspapers, was linked to the Iranian opposition.
“He was planning to set up a television station and he wanted to go to Baghdad to meet Ayatollah Sistani,” says Fereshtyan. “I laughed. He wanted to tell me more about it.” At the time, he hadn’t taken his client's latest whim seriously. If Zam had felt threatened by the Iranian regime all the way to France, how could he even consider going to the gates of Iran for a second round?
The name of Ayatollah Sistani was quite possibly used as bait to lure the journalist into a trap.
Ambition and Naivety
Ruhollah Zam had been running Amad News remotely for several years. It enjoyed a readership of several million Iranians around the world. He is widely believed to have played a particularly important role in the protests that rocked Iran in late 2017, fuelling public anger against the authorities through his digital missives. For this reason, he was in the crosshairs of the Islamic Republic.
Zam had been living in France since 2011. He acquired refugee status there in 2013 but that by itself didn’t make him feel safe. In mid-2018, a few months after the latest wave of Iranian protests, Zam felt directly under threat. He had been invited to a series of mysterious meetings, and became convinced that he was wanted dead. Instead of attending these meals, Zam presented himself to a local police station and begged for protection. The French police laughed at him, but finally called him back six months later to tell him to move out of Paris. They also granted him two armed security agents.
Meanwhile, Amad was encountering some difficulties. The number of readers was declining slightly and Zam wanted to innovate. A television channel would have been ideal...
To calm Mr. Fereshtyan during their fateful meeting in October, Zam explained to him that he had sent a trusted colleague called Shirin Najafi to Baghdad a fortnight earlier. She was supposed to make arrangements for the meeting and make sure it was safe for Zam to go.
Najafi was based in Istanbul, where Zam and his family had previously taken up residence for a time before moving to France. She also contributed to Amad. Najafi pretended to be in Baghdad and sent her boss messages regularly, encouraging him to pursue his travel plans. She is now suspected by the journalist's relatives of having played a crucial part in the trap set up for Zam, as this article by the Financial Times recounts.
The lawyer wasn’t reassured at all. "I understood the scenario immediately," he says. The two men bade each other farewell, but Hassan Fereshtyan had no idea that his client had already picked up his visa and was planning to depart for Iraq the next day. His only chance to convince him to cancel this trip was gone, without him even knowing it. He was not to see his friend again.
Kidnapped and Sentenced in Iran
Four days later, on October 14, the news broke that Ruhollah Zam had been arrested in Iraq. In the photographs that later circulated of his arrest in Baghdad, Zam seemed not to suspect the fate that awaited him. Later, the Revolutionary Guards proudly claimed to have set up a scheme to kidnap him, without giving more details on the circumstances of the arrest. From there, Zam was transferred to Iran’s Evin prison and charged with espionage on behalf of seven different entities including the FBI, CIA, English MI6 and French intelligence services.
The trial took place in February 2020. Zam had been forced to choose a lawyer from a list of 20 names approved by the regime. Seventeen charges were laid out against him, including "espionage for Israeli and French intelligence services”, “cooperation with the hostile government of the US” and “participation in gathering classified information with the intent to deliver to others”. In an apparent nod to his online activities, Zam was also accused of “assembly and conspiracy to commit crimes against national and international security”, “participation in persuading and provoking the people to war and massacre” and “effective encouragement of members of the armed forces to rebel, flee, surrender, or refuse to do their duty”.
The verdict was revealed on June 30, 2020. Tehran Revolutionary Court considered that 13 of the charges against Zam amounted to the charge of “corruption on earth” and therefore carried the death penalty.
The journalist immediately appealed. Meanwhile, his father Mohammad-Ali Zam, who has served in previous Iranian governments, was moving heaven and earth to have his son released. A decision appeared to have been taken in October but, surprisingly, it had not been made public, leaving Ruhollah Zam and his family in endless wait.
On December 8, the axe fell. "More than a month ago, the Supreme Court ruled on this case and the verdict of the Revolutionary Court was confirmed," announced judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili.
Amnesty International was quick to react on Twitter, stating that “Iran's Supreme Court upholding the death sentence of Ruhollah Zam, a journalist and dissident, is a shocking escalation in Iran's use of the death penalty as a weapon of repression.” Amnesty also called on the European Union to take “urgent action” to cancel “this cruel sentence”. But despite the efforts of Amnesty and other human rights defenders, Zam was executed on the morning of December 12, 2020.
‘He Had No More Friends’
In Paris, Mr Fereshtyan remembers meeting with his client. "He wanted me to be Amad News's lawyer,” he says. “But I declined." On his Telegram channel Ruhollah Zam had attacked everyone, sparing no-one in the opposition. "He had no more friends," said Fereshtyan, who regrets the lack of a more active campaign in support of Zam since his arrest. “The French government condemned his arrest. They could not protect him because he was not a French national, but they could have protected him as a refugee.”
When the pair had first met in 2012, the lawyer quickly became attached to Zam, a young man then in his thirties whom he described as "courageous, ambitious, at times naïve, and full of that fiery youthfulness". He knew Zam’s family by reputation as a well-established reformist clan in Iran, of which Ruhollah had long been the black sheep. He took him under his wing, not always sharing his opinion, but becoming his ally in the maze of French bureaucracy.
For a few years, Zam had lived crammed with his wife and child in a 13 square meter room in a migrant hostel in Paris. Mr. Fereshtyan smiled bitterly as he showed me the photos of Zam’s daughter's bunk bed: how could the regime accuse someone in these circumstances of getting rich from foreign intelligence?
The reality of Zam’s daily life was quite different: modest and sparse, that of an average migrant seeking to rebuild his life in a new country, coming up against French institutional racism. Fereshtyan had supported Ruhollah Zam in a series of disputes with the French authorities to help him obtain decent housing for his pregnant wife and the right to enrol their child in school.
At one point, Zam reportedly considered changing career and starting up a business instead. But ultimately he resolved not to put Amad News aside. It was his life.