Doctors held for talking with the ‘enemy’

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — Cyrus the Great, the first Achaemenid emperor and founder of Persia, would be ashamed of the actions of the Iranian government with regard to the uncalled for detention in June of two Iranian doctors, who are experts on AIDS. The flagrant abuse of their basic human rights would have been roundly condemned by the emperor, who declared the first charter of human rights known to mankind.

Academic institutions and human rights activists worldwide have protested the detention of the two brothers, Dr. Arash Alaei and Dr. Kamiar Alaei.

More than 3,000 people and organizations worldwide are protesting their detention, including professor Michel Kazatchkine, executive director of the Global Fund, and Dr. Paul Farmer, an AIDS expert and cofounder of Partners in Health, which is doing valuable public health work in Haiti.

The Alaei brothers were indicted this month on charges of communicating with an “enemy government.” The doctors’ detention for seven months violates tenets of the Iranian penal code. According to their lawyer, Masoud Shafie, Articles 30-34 of the Code of Penal Procedure of the Islamic Republic of Iran allow for detentions, but require that the judge investigating the case issue detention orders for one month at a time and for no longer than four months.

Kamiar Alaei is a doctoral candidate at the State University of New York (SUNY) School of Public Health in Albany, New York. He planned to resume his studies there this fall. In 2007, he received a master of science degree in population and international health from the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.

His brother, Arash Alaei, is the former director of the International Education and Research Cooperation of the Iranian National Research Institute of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease. For the last 10 years, the brothers have been carrying out HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention activities particularly aimed at reducing the harmful effects of the infection among injection drug users.

After they finished their medical training, the Alaei brothers worked on AIDS research in Iran. They contributed to the creation of Iran’s HIV/AIDS prison program, widely considered among the best in the region. The doctors have expanded their activities into other countries and held training workshops for Afghan and Tajik health professionals.

Iran’s work in the HIV/AIDS and public health arena has earned the country recognition as a model of practice by the World Health Organization.

“Iran’s HIV/AIDS program has been acclaimed internationally for seriously addressing the AIDS epidemic. The detention without charges of the Alaei brothers has a chilling effect on all those efforts,” declared Joe Amon, HIV/AIDS program director at Human Rights Watch.

As part of their work on HIV/AIDS, the Alaei brothers have traveled extensively outside Iran, including the United States, both to participate in professional events and to share their country’s experience in fighting the epidemic. To detain them for communicating with an “enemy government” is nothing short of absurd.

Because Iran is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, it has strict legal obligations not to conduct arbitrary arrests or detention and to afford due process to anyone detained. Those obligations have been violated in the case of the Alaei brothers.

The government of Iran is eager for international recognition as a valid partner in the international arena. Respect for human rights and freedom of detained physicians would contribute to making the world believe that Iran deserves such a place.

Cesar Chelala, M.D., is an international public health consultant and a cowinner of the Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights. He is the foreign correspondent for The Middle East Times International (Australia).