ITV News has heard claims that the Iranian regime is reaching beyond its borders to intimidate dissidents, as Lucy Watson reports, with news gathering by Mona Larijani.
A life on the run isn’t easy, neither is disappearing without a trace, but some people have no choice.
At the very start of Iran’s uprising, we spoke to Saman. He claims he was shot at point blank range by the regime’s security forces at a protest in October. He was blinded in one eye in the attack and fled the country in fear.
He has long been an activist so wasn’t afraid to tell his story. Back then, we spoke to him online but since November, his fears have grown and he’s been forced to go underground. Saman’s bravery shines through though, and he agreed to meet us once again, this time in person, in hiding.
He was okay but afraid.
“This kind of living, this hiding, is too hard," he told me. “I have to leave this country. This country is too near to Iran. Some people close to the regime send me messages. And they told me 'we want to kill you. We want to catch you'.
"The Iranian government has found it easy to arrest and kill anyone who opposes them in this country and send them back to Iran.”
He believes if he was found and deported back to Iran he would “100% be executed.”
We ventured outside at one point. He was dressed completely in black with his hood up. Whether it was a door banging or a dog barking, his head was on a swivel, his eyes darting in every direction, constantly looking over his shoulder.
Saman trusts very few people in Turkey, and has good reason.
On our trip, we also travelled to a different part of the country, where we met Amir. He used to work at sea for Iran’s navy, but left without permission when his assignments became too harrowing.
He told me: “Iran’s regime used our ships to carry weapons to Syria for the war. We would take around 20 containers full of munitions every month. I took part in about six or seven missions like this, but the navy was doing it every month until 2019. We would travel from Iran and stop off the coast of Syria and then small boats would come to take the weapons ashore.”
Knowing he was supplying munitions to aid a war, he couldn’t bear to see images of it on television. He asked to leave the military but wasn’t allowed, so he escaped. That came with the risk of jail or execution. The navy also kept his passport so he had to look for someone to help him get to Turkey, illegally.
“A smuggler took me over the mountains to Turkey,” he said, "it was minus 27 degrees up there. It was so dangerous. So many people die making the crossing, but I had no choice.”
His survival defied his own belief. He saw several dead bodies en route, but the torment didn’t stop when his journey did. Iran’s intelligence wanted him back.
“I changed my phone four times, changed where I lived three times. Every time I moved, they found me and would call me,” he said.
Then, after being watched for 40 days, a group of men turned up at his home.
“A Mercedes drew up next to my house as I was walking down the street. The men inside were Turkish and Iranian. They tried to get me in the car, tried to convince me they wanted me for the Turkish Navy but I knew they were lying, so I got away.”
11 people have been detained in Turkey for being involved in the plot. But nobody has been arrested over the attempted abduction of Mehri.
She was an activist inside Iran for 10 years and fled to Turkey after being jailed and tortured.
“Iran’s regime is corrupt. They take any choice away from women,” she said to me.
She’s also a keen mountaineer and was invited via Instagram to a group event taking place at a well-known climbing spot. Her and her husband went. When they got there the group was not the expected 40, but just four Iranian men.
Mehri says they gave the couple an energy drank which Mehri drank freely. Her husband didn’t. Within minutes she felt dizzy and started to see double.
“My husband realised what was happening. He got me inside the car, slashed their tyres and drove off fast. We always carry a knife, just in case.”
Mehri escaped to Turkey in pursuit of safety. She had to leave her son behind in Iran with his father, and she firmly believes this was an attempt to kidnap her.
“I lost my life and my child because of the Islamic Republic of Iran. I’m a mother. I’m a woman. I just want to live in peace.”
The threat to dissenting voices beyond Iran’s borders is a real one.
We also met Dr Ehsan Karamooz. He’s a musician but also an activist, and he too has spent time in jail inside Iran, and been subjected to horrific torture.
He escaped the Islamic Republic more than a decade ago and now helps others fleeing persecution. He’s aware of the regime’s tactics and how they lure dissidents.
He claims: “[The regime has] mercenaries in Turkey who work for the Islamic Republic who pass on information to Iran’s intelligence system. Sometimes they disguise themselves as refugees or religious leaders, and women are also used to trap men.
"They pretend they are romantically interested in them, then take these men to places where they can be kidnapped or killed.”
Thirty-thousand Iranians live in Turkey seeking refuge, but a feeling of safety alludes them when what they’re escaping can follow them.
ITV News approached the Iranian regime for comment but received no reply.
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