Colin C. Cortbus

Will Argentina Deport ‘Dissident’ Mojtaba Keifi To Iran?

Cartoonist's illustration of Mojtaba Keifi.  Copyright-free accordding to CC0  (made for this author by an Iranian opposition activist who wishes to remain anonymous).
Cartoonist's illustration of Mojtaba Keifi. Copyright-free accordding to CC0 (made for this author by an Iranian opposition activist who wishes to remain anonymous).

Populist governments across Latin America are cozying up to the Iranian dictatorship. From Bolivia to Venezuela,  carefully choreographed indifference to the ayatollah’s crimes against humanity is the new normal.  Amid this regional wave of appeasement and deal-making, Argentinian authorities are finalizing the paperwork to deport Iranian asylum-seeker Mojtaba Keifi to Tehran, despite strong criticism from experts and human rights activists. The decision may set a regional precedent.  Is Mr. Keifi’s survival, freedom, and well-being the price Argentina’s government is willing to pay for its willful blindness towards the evil of the terrorist regime in Tehran?

On a leafy avenue in the prestigious Palermo Chico neighborhood of Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires, there is an inconspicuous four-story building. If not for the large Iranian regime flag flying from a pole above the downstairs entrance gate, the building wouldn’t stand out at all. Iranian diplomats work here at the embassy, largely undisturbed by protesters. Just a few blocks up the same avenue, there is the leafy Plaza Republica Islamica De Iran, complete with Persian historical symbols and an explanatory plaque donated by the regime. This idyll may seem out of place. After all, in 1994, the regime in Tehran and its radical-Islamist Hezbollah collaborators carried out a terrorist, anti-Semitic bomb attack at the AMIA Argentinian-Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, murdering over 80 people. The outspoken independent prosecutor investigating the case was murdered in 2015, a crime that remains unsolved. Nonetheless, Argentina’s current populist government remains seemingly indifferent to the threat from Tehran. When the government organized the Third International Human Rights Forum in Buenos Aires this year, not a single Iranian dissident or journalist was among those selected to speak during the Forum’s main official programming. However, former Bolivian president Evo Morales, an erstwhile ally of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was among the official speakers. Also invited to speak was Grecia Colmenares, the leader of the youth wing of the ruling party of the communist dictatorship in Venezuela, who was personally nominated to her post by Tehran-aligned dictator Maduro.

Now, Argentina plans to hand over the Iranian asylum-seeker and self-professed religious Christian Mojtaba Keifi to Iran. The paperwork for his deportation is currently being finalized by the Argentinian government’s National Migration Directorate and may be filed with the judiciary within a matter of days. It is believed this is the first time Argentina may ever deport any asylum-seeker to Tehran and potentially even the first such case in all of Latin America.

Keifi is a young man in his twenties, originally from the sleepy provincial city of Sabzevar in North-Eastern Iran. In 2016, he reportedly began a journey so dangerous that even seasoned globe-trotters and world travelers might not attempt it. He arrived by plane in communist Venezuela, the only place in Latin America where Iranians can travel without a visa. Onwards from there, he apparently hitchhiked, bussed, or walked thousands of miles south across the Latin American continent, inofficially crossing remote, unsafe, and underpoliced borders. Surprisingly, his destination was not a prosperous country of the sort that would typically attract large migration flows. Instead, it was a country with almost as much massive inflation and poverty as Iran, but with the crucial difference of being a democracy: Argentina.

Unable to speak much Spanish, Keifi soon found himself unemployed and out of luck. By 2021, Keifi was found by Argentinian authorities living homeless on the streets of the northern Argentinian city of Salta. Later,  so a witness told the authorities, Keifi worked briefly as a trash scavenger in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires, selling used aluminum cans that he found in the city’s bins to a scrap metal dealership in the notoriously unsafe and impoverished Constitucion area of the capital.

In June 2022, Keifi was arrested while trying to buy an intra-regional bus ticket in the small touristic town of Concepción, located in Argentina’s central Entre Rios province. In Argentina, ID is mandatory to buy bus tickets, and Keifi, according to the court judgment, attempted to do so with an Argentinian identity card that obviously did not belong to him. The ID card had been reported as stolen by its legitimate owner after a wallet theft in central Buenos Aires. Mojtaba Keifi received a one-year and one-month jail sentence for “the crime of using the national document of another person”. The author of this article has seen the judgment, which was published with the case number FPA 5740/2022/TO1. The judgment does not accuse Keifi of stealing the wallet and makes no comment about how he obtained that identity card. Thieves in Buenos Aires are usually looking for cash or quickly-resellable mobile phones and often throw away everything else at the first opportunity. So, it is perfectly conceivable that Keifi encountered this ID card while looking in dumpsters for old beer cans.

At the time of his arrest, Keifi did not have any identity documents of his own. Initially, the mystery of Keifi’s real identity attracted vast local media attention and had officials baffled. Keifi appears to have tried to hide in Argentina, avoiding using his real Iranian name. Instead, he adopted the Christian-sounding name Azad Cristo Francisco or Asan Azad prior to his arrest. Those names are even listed in the court judgment as his aliases. The word ‘azad’ means ‘free’ (in the sense of freedom) in Farsi, Mojtaba Keifi’s mother tongue. But Keifi didn’t just adopt a Christian name.  In his police mugshot photo, Keifi wore a chain with a large cross around his neck.  Months later, the Iranian regime’s Interpol liaison office identified him as Sabzevar-born Mojtaba Keifi based on fingerprinting and facial recognition technology, according to the court judgment.

While in jail, Mojtaba Keifi filed an asylum application with the help of a public defender, arguing that he was persecuted in Iran as a dissident Christian. Argentina’s refugee commission, largely staffed by government representatives, swiftly rejected Keifi’s request. It reportedly cited his lack of identity documents as a reason. The federal court judgment in the ID-card misuse case notes that the “National Commission for Refugees (CONARE) of the National Directorate of Migrations …. reported that Keifi did not submit identification documentation, so due to this his application for recognition of refugee status …. was denied by the conjunct signed resolution dated 09/21/2022”.

Argentinian refugee law states that procedures shall be carried out with the “principles of confidentiality”. However, news about the fact that Keifi was arguing he was persecuted in Iran for his Christian faith soon found its way into Argentinian media, as did the mugshot showing him wearing the chain with a cross.  The publicly released court judgment in the identity card misuse case included even more information about Keifi’s political background. It stated that investigators were able to determine that Keifi’s profile picture on Whatsapp, before his arrest, “showed different people … burning an Iranian flag”.  The fact that all this information has been made public means the Iranian regime can access it too. Thus, these disclosures may well be used by the Iranian regime to persecute Keifi even more intensely if he is returned to Iran.

The director of the well-known Norway-based NGO Iran Human Rights, Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam told me that “according to the Iranian laws anti-regime activities outside the country are also punished as if they were in Iran. So burning the Islamic Republic flag is such an activity. Also converting to Christianity is illegal and punishable. Moreover, Iranian authorities are going through one of their worst crises ever, therefore they are more paranoid than before and the human rights violations are worse than in many years. So, unless the Argentinian authorities are sure that he hasn’t been involved in anti-regime activities, and that he hasn’t converted to Christianity, there is a significant risk of persecution, imprisonment, torture, and other inhumane treatment, if Mr Keifi is returned to Iran”.

The fact the authorities reportedly cited Keifi’s lack of identity documents as the legal rationale to deny him asylum has also been criticized by experts. German lawyer Peter Von Auer, an expert in refugee law who works with German refugee rights organizations such as Pro-Asyl, said “Presenting an ID document is of course not a requirement for Refugee Status recognition according to the Geneva Refugee Convention. Much to the contrary, the convention recognizes that refugees in particular have special difficulties with presenting or obtaining identity documents: If at the time of fleeing, no identity documents exist or if they are lost while fleeing, it is to be expected that obtaining them from the authorities of the refugee’s country of origin, exactly the same authorities from whose persecution the refugee fled, is no longer possible. It is internationally recognized that people who solicit recognition of refugee status cannot contact the authorities of their country of origin, either during their asylum procedure or after they have been recognized. Conversely, it is rather the case that getting into contact with the authorities of the country of origin for the purpose of obtaining identity documents can lead to the loss of refugee status. According to Art. 1, subsection C, subpoint 1 of the Geneva Refugee Convention, a person no longer falls under the protection of the Geneva Refugee Convention if he voluntarily re-avails himself of the protection of the country of his nationality. This includes the acceptance of a benefit by the home state – such as the acceptance or renewal of a national passport…”

Lawyer Peter Von Auer explained “If identity documents are not (or no longer) available when the asylum application is submitted, the refugee authorities usually rely on the information provided by the refugees if and as long as there are no other indications. If there are doubts about the applicant’s identity, the refugee authority of the state whose protection the refugee is seeking must find other ways of dealing with the above. For example, these may include a language test and/or a questioning by a person who is familiar with local customs in the region of the country of origin from which the fugitive claims to come. The fact that – as in the present case – the authorities of the country of origin confirm an identity using fingerprints should be seen as an extremely rare exception according to the above. It is incomprehensible to me how, given this background, the asylum application could still be rejected because of a lack of proof of identity.”

Argentina’s National Migration Directorate, Argentina’s refugee commission as well as the competent public defender’s office were contacted for comment, but so far no response to the questions has been received. In June, the author of this article requested to visit Mojtaba Keifi in jail.  At the request of the author of this article, the federal court secretariat handling Keifi’s case clarified in an official note that the court had not imposed any restrictions on visits. The secretariat stated that the matter was within the exclusive competence of the Penitentiary Service of Entre Rios State. Despite this, the penitentiary service there never offered this author any opportunity to visit Keifi in jail.

In July, Mojtaba Keifi completed his one-year and one-month jail term for using someone else’s ID card. Nonetheless, he was not released from jail. Local journalists waited for him in vain at the prison gates. Instead, Keifi was transferred from the state prison to a Federal Police station, where he has been detained ever since, awaiting deportation. A local human rights defender reportedly denounced Keifi’s continued detention as “absolutely irregular” and as “inhuman and degrading treatment”.

Whatever Keifi might have experienced in Argentina pales in comparison to the fate that could await him in Tehran. Whether the populist Argentinian government of Alberto Fernández and Cristina Kirchner sends him there may depend in no small way on whether the international community speaks out about Keifi’s case. The regime in Tehran relishes in its ability to engage in transnational repression. Will we let them, yet again?

About the Author
Freelance journalist researching extremism, racism and radicalisation.
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