From: Los Angeles Daily News
Before Youssef and Elana Tehrani flew from Iran to Austria, they entrusted their eldest son to smugglers who would transport him into Pakistan.
Babak Tehrani was 16 and evading military service so he couldn't travel freely out of Iran. He expected to meet up with his parents and two brothers in Vienna, then travel with them to Los Angeles, where he would continue his studies and become a doctor.
That was in 1994, and the Tehranis haven't seen him since.
They are convinced he was arrested and tortured as he tried to emigrate illegally through the flat desert near Zahedan. A former neighbor has testified he saw Babak in a notorious prison in Tehran, giving them hope he is alive.
"Imagine going 12 years not knowing where your son is - no news, no letters," Elana Tehrani said, brewing Persian tea in her Westside apartment. "How would you feel if you were in my situation?"
This month, the Tehranis and six Iranian Jewish families living in Israel filed suit against the former president of Iran, whom they hold responsible for the disappearance of 12 Iranian Jews between 1994 and 1997.
Relatives believe the men, ages 15 to 60 when they disappeared, have been secretly incarcerated and tortured.
"It's a last hope," said Siamak Tehrani, the middle son, who was 14 when Babak vanished. "We've knocked on every door hoping one would work."
Elana Tehrani has spent much of the years crying her tear ducts dry. Youssef Tehrani blames his heart attack on worrying about his son.
"There is not even a moment when we don't think about the situation," said Siamak Tehrani, now 26. "We open our eyes in the morning and we think about this until we go to bed at night."
The Tehranis and the other families that sued have received no record of their sons', husbands' and fathers' whereabouts. Inquiries with the Iranian government have been rebuffed. But multiple witnesses claim to have seen the men in Iranian prisons.
"Where they are? Why they are being held? If in the opinion of Iran they have committed any crimes, what are their charges?" asked Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Los Angeles-based Iranian American Jewish Federation. "There are a lot of unanswered questions. These are citizens of Iran, and the government needs to provide answers."
The United States has not had diplomatic relations with Iran for more than two decades.
Messages left for Mohammad Mohammadi, spokesman for the Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations, were not returned.
On a two-week speaking tour in the United States, Mohammad Khatami, a relative moderate who was Iran's president from 1997 to 2005, was served the lawsuit by two retired police officers while attending a private reception in Arlington, Va.
Khatami has until Thursday to respond.
Filed in U.S. District Court in New York, the suit seeks unspecified damages - "hundreds of millions of dollars," said the plaintiffs' attorney, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner.
In a phone interview from Tel Aviv, Darshan-Leitner said U.S. law allows foreigners to sue other foreigners violating the Alien Tort Claims Act and the Torture Victim Protection Act. If her clients win, she said, they could target Khatami's assets in nations friendly to the United States.
Elana Tehrani hopes the case attracts international attention to her son's disappearance. At a pro-Israel rally outside the United Nations last week that coincided with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defending his nation's nuclear program before the General Assembly, Tehrani took the stage and begged for her son's return.
"If President Bush can hear us," she had said in her apartment. "He supports all the Jews and he has been there for the Jews. In the war with Israel (and Lebanon), President Bush supported Israel because of the hostage situation. This is a hostage situation."
For 2,700 years, Jews have lived in Persia, now called Iran. They were persecuted often during that time, but remained for the culture they cherished.
The middle of the 20th century brought prosperity to Iranian Jews. But after Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was deposed in 1979 during the Islamic revolution, Jews left Iran en masse.
Some 35,000 now live in Los Angeles, the most populous Iranian Jewish community outside Israel. Treatment worsened toward the estimated 20,000 Jews who either couldn't leave or decided to stay.
"By 1995, Jews were accused of bringing AIDS into Iran and causing economic chaos," the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles reported in 2000. "That same year, Fayzollah Mekhubabt, a 78-year-old cantor in a Tehran synagogue, was taken to prison. His eyes were gouged out before he was executed. Mekhubabt was buried in a Muslim cemetery. His family was forced to disinter his remains in order to bury him in a Jewish cemetery."
The source of that information, and the focus of the article, was Frank Nikbakht, a Jew who escaped Iran in 1982 and has become a voice for those who remain. A leader of the tiny L.A.-based Committee for Religious Minority Rights in Iran, he speaks ominously of the sectarian cloud over his homeland.
"The Jews are in danger of being exterminated with one little incitement from the heads of government," Nikbakht said. "They have created enough hatred so that when the time comes that they decide to get rid of the Jews, they can do it in a matter of hours."
Among the 12 missing men is Shaheen, whose last name is not being used because his parents still live in Iran. He was 20 and with Babak when they disappeared June 8, 1994.
Shaheen was trying to get to Los Angeles, where his brother had settled after fleeing Iran through Pakistan in 1989. Their parents were going to follow once Shaheen was out and safe.
"This is not just an accident that kids disappear," his brother said. "It was an orchestrated effort to eliminate the Jews from getting out of Iran. I believe they have captured them to create a fear."
Shaheen's family did not join the lawsuit because they feared that the government would retaliate, possibly lethally. But they are running out of options.
"We have been pleading to these people for the last 12 years," Shaheen's brother said. "We haven't gotten any answers."