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US Hikers Were Seized in Iraq: WikiLeaks Document Corroborates Nation Report | The Nation

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US Hikers Were Seized in Iraq: WikiLeaks Document Corroborates Nation Report

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Less than a month later, in late August 2009, Taab himself was arrested and charged with the July 6 murder of the son of Mostafa Shirzadi, the Imam Joma (Friday prayer leader) of Marivan, an influential cleric in the region. Shirzadi's nephew was also allegedly killed by Taab. Since his arrest Taab has been implicated in a vast criminal enterprise encompassing a profitable smuggling operation and dozens of murders, rapes and kidnappings. According to the Sanandaj official, numerous lawsuits, perhaps hundreds, have been filed against Taab in Kurdistan, alleging libel, theft, rape, kidnapping and murder. Taab's case has twice been before a judge, and he awaits execution in a Tehran prison.

This article was reported in collaboration with the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. Naseh Afrani (a pseudonym) contributed reporting from Kurdistan province, and Nicholas Jahr contributed reporting from New York.

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About the Author

Babak Sarfaraz
Babak Sarfaraz is a pseudonym for a journalist in Iran.

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Although the state-run Iranian press has not reported on Taab's crimes, they were made public in a series of articles in January and February by a Kurdish news site, Kurdistan Va Kurdnews, run by the Kurdistan Democratic Party. A February 17 article describes Taab as the head of a "criminal band" and reports that Taab and seven accomplices were under arrest by the Revolutionary Guards for their role in a vast number of illegal killings.

Several sources describe Taab as the central power in Kurdistan province. According to locals and experts, control of the border lies in the hands of the Revolutionary Guards, in particular their intelligence unit, Etelaat Sepah, whose local division had been commanded by Taab for about five years. "At this point it's really the Sepah, the Revolutionary Guards, that are in charge, especially in the western provinces, especially because the Americans are on the other side, in Iraq," says Kaveh Ehsani, an assistant professor of international studies at DePaul University and an Iran expert who serves as a contributing editor to the journal Middle East Report. "On the surface the security force [NAJA] is in charge, but it really is the Revolutionary Guards that control the borders."

It is a region where, according to several Iran experts, smuggling and cross-border traffic are routine. The Iraq-Iran border is "relatively porous because it's mountainous," says Faraz Sanei, an Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch, which issued a report last year on political freedom in Iranian Kurdistan. Sanei describes the border as a common escape route for dissidents—journalists, human rights advocates and Iranian Kurds—as well as a commonly used trade route for goods. "Smuggling is something that has taken place and continues to take place there, whether it be of goods or of humans across the border. It's something that happens quite often."

Soon after Taab took charge of the Sepah in the northwestern quadrant of Kurdistan, he began to enrich himself off the black-market border economy. According to the Sanandaj official and the former Revolutionary Guards officer, who had firsthand knowledge of Taab's activities, Taab's first scheme involved selling merchandise confiscated from petty smugglers, known as koolbars, who traffic consumer goods across the border (a trade depicted in the Iranian film A Time for Drunken Horses, which won the Caméra d'Or at Cannes in 2000).

The region is also home to a variety of Kurdish nationalist groups that have been demanding autonomy from the central Tehran government. One of these, the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, a Kurdish separatist organization that engages in armed conflict within Turkey and has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States and other governments. Since 2005 PJAK, based in the mountains in Kurdish Iraq, has been in open conflict with Tehran and has claimed responsibility for killing dozens of Revolutionary Guards soldiers in cross-border raids on Iranian military bases, as well as for the February 2007 downing of an Iranian military helicopter by a shoulder-launched missile in Khoy, in Western Azerbaijan province, which killed thirteen Iranian soldiers.

It has been speculated that some of these Kurdish militants enjoy US support. In April 2006, Representative Dennis Kucinich wrote a letter to President Bush questioning whether the US government was "fomenting opposition and supporting military operations in Iran among insurgent groups and Iranian ethnic minority groups, some of whom are operating from Iraq." Kucinich named two groups, including PJAK. In November of that year, Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker that "Israel and the United States have also been working together in support of a Kurdish resistance group known as the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan," and that a government consultant told him that the Israeli government had provided "equipment and training" to PJAK.

The United States and Israel have denied any involvement with PJAK. Still, these allegations of support have gained substantial traction inside Iran and may have undergirded Taab's decision to detain Bauer, Fattal and Shourd as well as the repeated public charges of espionage against the three. In early April, for instance, Iranian Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi told Iran's Press TV that "it is quite obvious to us that the three Americans arrested in Iran last year had links with Western and Israeli intelligence services."

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