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‘I Am Counting the Seconds’: The Iranian Dissident Set to be Deported to Rwanda

Frankie Vetch meets a man facing the harsh reality of Priti Patel’s renewed hostile environment

Boat spotted in the English Channel. Photo: adp-news/Alamy

‘I Am Counting the Seconds’The Iranian Dissident Set to be Deported to Rwanda

Frankie Vetch interviews a man facing the harsh reality of Priti Patel’s renewed hostile environment

When Bahram (not his real name) refused to fire on the protestors, it changed his life forever.

Last year the Iranian policeman escaped his country. 27 days ago, he entered the UK. Then 10 days ago, he was told he would be deported to Rwanda.

All that now stands between him and deportation is a decision by the UK High Court.

“If I go to Rwanda, considering the relationship between Rwanda and Iran, I will definitely be hunted down,” he told Byline Times. “I’d much rather go to Iran and be taken to my execution immediately, than for it to be drawn out.”

Bahram is just one of 130 people selected to be deported to Rwanda next week. To the Home Secretary, he is an ‘illegal migrant’. But for many lawyers and experts he is a legitimate asylum seeker.

This is not the first time that Bahram has faced deportation. He escaped persecution in Iran by going to Turkey. “Iranian officers are known as having free reign in Turkey,” Bahram said. “There have been many arrests and many kidnappings by Iranian intelligence officers.”

Concerns about the safety of Iranians in Turkey have been raised before. In 2020, 33 Iranians were deported back to Iran, where two were killed for their involvement in the same 2019 protests that led to Bahram’s prosecution.

Bahram was only saved by a lawyer who freed him from a deportation centre. After this, having spent around a year in hiding, he felt the pressure on his family would increase. He knew once again that he would have to flee. 

“I contacted my family and they gave money to a smuggler,” he said. “I put my life in the hands of the smuggler.”

Bahram was first taken to a house near the Turkish coast and hidden. The house was dirty and there were 20 people in one small room. They were given a sandwich or two a day. He felt like he was under house arrest.

The night he left, they were shuttled out in groups of four. He walked for half an hour to a small boat. He was then taken to a bigger boat. Around 67 people were crammed into a 10-metre-long ship – the equivalent of fitting six football teams into a boat less than half the length of a tennis court. He had been sold a lie.

“It was not safe at all,” Bahram told Byline Times. “The smuggler had told us that it was about 27 metres in length, and had shown us pictures and videos.”

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In the early hours of the morning, they started their three-hour trip across the water. “There were many times we nearly drowned,” he said. “There was a Ukrainian captain on the ship, if it weren’t for him we would have 100% drowned.”

But this was not the last boat he would take or the most dangerous.

When they approached the shore, those who could swim were told to do so. Some women and children were taken on small boats.

On the beach, they were divided into groups again and put into lorries. There was no way to tell the time, but it took Bahram and his four other companions at least two to three days to get to their next destination. Tucked away in a lorry, to eat they had biscuits. For a loo, a plastic container. In this lorry, he travelled an unknown route.

His first night free from the lorry was spent in a forest. It was very cold. At 5am he was taken to a beach. He had arrived on the French coast and was now to make the final and most dangerous part of his journey – the English Channel crossing.

There were around 10 men armed with guns and knives. The boat was a small blow up raft. The five of his travelling companions were soon joined by a growing crowd. 

“There were some people who did not want to get on the boat but were threatened,” Bahram said. “Because of that I decided that I must get on the boat.”

This boat was worse than the one they had taken from Turkey. It was just a life raft, less than 10 metres in length, accommodating at least 40 people. “At that point, you know it is not in your own hands,” Bahram said. “A wave would come over and you would think you would die.”

When a French naval ship dwarfed their raft 10 to 15 minutes into their journey, it stayed there, watching over them. Bahram realised it was trying to protect them from drowning.

After about five hours, Bahram arrived at the British coast. His journey from Turkey had taken between 17 and 20 days. He had escaped two countries and travelled across the world by foot, boat and lorry.


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Welcome to the UK

As part of the UK’s new immigration policy, refugees entering the UK across the Channel or by other so-called ‘illegal routes’ can be deported to Rwanda. Once there, they can claim asylum, but there is no route back to the UK. Priti Patel hopes the plan will “overhaul the broken asylum system and break the evil people smugglers”.

But experts, human rights activists and lawyers doubt the legality of the plan.

Gillian Triggs, an assistant secretary-general at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has said it is a breach of international law. The UNHCR has also said that the majority of people crossing the Channel are refugees and not migrants.

Between January 2018 and June 2020, more than 50% of people detected crossing the Channel were from Iran. Three other Iranians are reportedly set to be deported alongside Bahram.

Arriving cold, with wet clothes and an empty stomach, Bahram felt very happy to have arrived in the UK. But, just 17 days after reaching safety in the country, he was sent a letter by the Home Office – his application for asylum had been refused. He is now to be sent 4,000 miles – almost two-and-a-half times the distance he travelled from Turkey – to Rwanda.

Lawyers have filed a judicial review for his case today, challenging the Government’s policy of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda. It could take months for the case to be reviewed and would likely be combined with other applications for judicial review. Bahram could still be deported while the case is being reviewed.

His lawyers, who have only had five days to prepare, will also potentially file for an injunction on Monday. If this is the case, the court could halt his deportation while his case is being reviewed.

Hamid Sabi, a British human rights lawyer of Iranian origin, said it is “absurd” of the Government to argue it is illegal to arrive on a dinghy. Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, if a person arrives in the UK and asks for asylum, they have entered the country legally.

Bahram’s ‘Crime’

In November 2019, protests erupted in Iran over the tripling of fuel prices. In response, the Iranian police and military cracked down on protestors using weapons. Amnesty International estimates that more than 300 people were killed.

The Aban Tribunal – an international people’s tribunal – was set up to assess the killings. Bahram was a witness, explaining how he was ordered to shoot protestors.

As a policeman with 60 people under his command, he told his forces that under no condition must they use firearms. Bahram said the protestors were cooperative, “very polite” and “totally peaceful”. But he said other policemen and members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard started to shoot at people, killing some. 

“I saw snipers target anybody,” he said. “There was no rhyme or reason to it. Peaceful protestors were arbitrarily shot.”

After the protests, Bahram says he was arrested and taken to a detention centre where he spent 97 days in solitary confinement and was “subjected to the most serious types of psychological torture”. In one instance, he was handed a forged report, he says, that claimed his family had died in an accident and were in a morgue. He went on hunger strike and, after weeks, they allowed him to contact his family.

Bahram said he was given a mock trial in a military court, with no prosecutor or jury. It lasted 10 minutes and he was condemned to five years and 10 months in prison. He was accused of acting against national security and collaborating with demonstrators. When he was let out on bail, he fled to Turkey.

Shadi Sadr, a human rights lawyer and organiser of the Aban Tribunal, said that “Bahram’s refusal to fire and his decision to testify against the Iranian regime were acts of conscience” and that he was “punished for it once and is being punished again for trying to escape through the only way available to him”.

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Sadr added that the UK Government’s Rwanda deal “is in violation of a number of human rights principles, including right to life” and is a “blatant breach of due process that bars basic rights given to refugees”.

Human Rights Watch has criticised Rwanda’s human rights record and poor treatment of refugees. Lewis Mudge, its central Africa director, has said that the “Government continues to embrace a policy of cruelty by sending refugees to a country with a track record for human rights abuses”.

Hamid Sabi, who acted as counsel to the Aban Tribunal, indicated that Bahram was a serious target for the Iranian state, having been a “very important witness” as one of few policemen to have criticised the Government. He also confirmed that members of his family have been arrested.

Nowhere Left to Escape

Bahram’s life is constantly in the hands of someone else. The Iranian state. The Turkish state. The smugglers. The UK Government. And now its judicial system. Not because he is a criminal but because, when he was in a position of power, he refused to follow orders by killing innocent civilians.

When Hamid Sabi escaped persecution in Iran after the 1979 Revolution, he did not need a visa to enter the UK. He questions whether, in modern Britain, he would be given sanctuary.

“The Iranian community in London are shocked,” he said, “nobody can understand where they found this solution to the problem.”

As Bahram counts down the days until he will be made to board a flight to an unfamiliar land – one in which he will once again be at the mercy of a foreign state – he is left in a prison-like detention centre.

“There are cells, they shut the doors at a certain point at night,” he said. “They let us out half an hour a day in the yard. It’s basically a prison.”

He has no safe way to contact his family directly and has to communicate through a friend. Bahram has not spoken to them for almost a month. Nor, he says, has he been allowed to see a specialist doctor to assess his heart condition. No medication had been provided until yesterday, when he was told he was to be given a malaria tablet.

“Right now, I am just counting the seconds,” he told Byline Times. Trying to distract myself and tell myself that this is not going to happen… The only thing I can do these days is just hope.”

Bahram refused the malaria pill and told them he did not want to go to Rwanda; a small act of resistance from a man with nowhere left to escape.

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