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'Just be safe,' mother tells sons as she's kept in Iran after husband's death

RICHMOND, B.C. — The son of an Iranian-Canadian professor who died in a Tehran prison fought back tears after he arrived in Canada on Thursday as he explained how his mother reacted when she wasn't allowed to board their flight from Iran. 

Brothers Ramin and Mehran Seyed-Emami told reporters that moments before they boarded the flight to Vancouver, where they planned to start a new "peaceful" life, Iranian authorities confiscated their mother's passport and blocked her from leaving the country.

Speaking in the arrivals area at Vancouver International Airport, Ramin said they're hopeful Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who has expressed "outrage" at their mother's detention, will succeed in pressuring Iran to allow her to come to Canada.

"They're trying to prevent us from rebuilding our lives," Ramin said of Iranian officials.

Freeland issued a statement Thursday welcoming Ramin and Mehran to Canada.

"At the same time, we were outraged to learn that their mother, Maryam Mombeini, Mr. Seyed-Emami’s widow, was barred from leaving Iran for no apparent reason," she said.

"We call on the government of Iran to immediately give Maryam Mombeini, a Canadian citizen, the freedom to return home."

Freeland said Canada is continuing to demand answers from Iran on the circumstances surrounding the death of Mombeini's husband Kavous Seyed-Emami, a 63-year-old sociology professor who was being held at Tehran's notorious Evin prison earlier this year. Iranian authorities have said Seyed-Emami's death was a suicide, but the family and others have questioned that finding.

Seyed-Emami's death sparked new anger in Iran over the treatment of detainees, especially after nearly 5,000 people were arrested in the wake of nationwide protests at the start of the year.

Ramin said the family has faced intimidation by authorities since they began speaking out about his father's death.

"Instead of being able to grieve the loss of our father in peace, we have been forced to endure harassment by the Iranian authorities," said Ramin, who was born in Iran but also lived with his family in Canada and the United States.

It was difficult to say goodbye to his mother, said Ramin, a musician who performs under the stage name King Raam.

"She said, 'I just want you guys to be safe and away from this horrible place. Don't ever come back,' " he said, his voice cracking.

"I have friends with her at all times. I don't want her to be alone for one single second."

Omar Alghabra, parliamentary secretary for the foreign affairs minister, said the government is "fully committed to reuniting them with their mother and we'll exercise all diplomatic channels and all actions before us to see their mother reunited with them back home."

That includes communication between Canada and Iran's representatives at the United Nations. Freeland has requested a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Javal Zarif, but had not received a response by mid-Thursday.

Seyed-Emami was a professor of sociology at Imam Sadeq University in Tehran and the managing director of the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation. He was arrested on Jan. 24.

Last month, Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi said authorities had arrested several unidentified people on suspicion of spying under the cover of scientific and environmental projects.

In an online blog post on his website dated Feb. 14, Ramin said his mother was summoned to a district court five days earlier to "meet with her husband." She was interrogated for three hours before hearing that her husband had died, it says.

The interrogators threatened to put her in prison if she spoke with media, then took her to see her husband's body, the post says. 

Ramin wrote he was shown a video of his father in a cell during a visit to the coroner's office on Feb. 12.

"I won't speak of the pain of this video, but I will say that nothing in it is conclusive. The actual death is not recorded. All I could see is that my dad is nervous and restless. He is not himself. He paces the cell to and fro," the blog post says.

In the video, Kavous Seyed-Emami walks into what the family was told is a bathroom. Hours later, a body is removed from that room, the blog post says.

The post says the family was told an autopsy would be automatic, since the death occurred in prison.

In an email circulated to media before leaving Iran, Ramin says the family planned to leave for Vancouver for their safety.

"Since the death of our father ... our lives have been thrown into complete chaos and terror. For such a peaceful man, who only lived to serve and love, to suffer such a tragic fate is utterly devastating not only for us but for a very large group of people who believed in his work and were inspired by his hope for a better future," the email says.

Amy Smart, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled Chrystia Freeland's surname.

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