Typically when you think of people trying to overthrow a government, an image of Guy Fawkes or anarchists is conjured. You rarely think of a well groomed doctor who acts proper and conscientious, dealing mostly with trying to reduce AIDS in Iran. Dr. Arash Alaei, 42, has been incarcerated in Tehran’s Evin prison since June 2008. Iranian law permits first offenders to be released after half their sentence, yet Alaei continues to remain imprisoned. Arash’s younger brother, Dr. Kamiar Alaei is campaigning for the release of Arash. Last week the world AIDS conference in Rome called on Alaei’s release. Elly Katabira, president of the International AIDS Society that spans 190 countries, stated that Alaei was imprisoned “for the only reason that he was trying to treat HIV-positive people in his home country.” The Physicians for Human Rights, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and thousands of individuals have campaigned for Alaei, most signing an online petition demanding his release.
Dr. Kamiar Alaei describes his first encounter with AIDS in 1997, when he came across a 19 year old man with HIV that was left in the corner of a room by nurses terrified by the virus. Kamiar and Arash have since set up clinics in 67 cities, and many more in prisons to treat the virus. They have worked for better needle exchange programs and methadone therapy in Iran, and push for the government to fund free HIV drugs. The UN Development Program donated $15.8 million, through the Global Fund, to the program, after endorsement by the World Health Organization in 2005. AIDS is especially common in Iran because of homophobia and fear from drug users, many being neglected by society and even their families in Iran because of its great illegality. The Alaei brothers pushed mosques to give safe-sex messages in an attempt to remove the fallacy of AIDS as being a “Christian disease” and to increase the use of condoms. All of these improvements were undergone under Iran’s 5th President, Mohammad Khatami.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the conservative new President to Iran has severely damaged the brothers’ work. Increased conservative values have led zealots to believe homosexuality, drug addiction, and prostitution, stem from Western influence. Kamiar was arrested while visiting home during a break from studying for his master’s degree at Harvard, a day after Arash being arrested. The brothers were tried in a single day behind closed doors and kept in jail for 7 months for no reason until being accused of “communication with an enemy government” and trying to “overthrow the government.” The brothers managed to continue public health work from prison, by increasing knowledge about the importance of cleanliness and fitness through various programs and influencing inmates about the importance of teaching each other. They managed to even paint the walls of the prison and attempted to make it more livable.
Because of the political strife in Iran, it is impossible to say when Arash will be released. The brothers face great odds of re-arrest if they stay in Iran. They still maintain great support by the medical community, which is in charge of the public health system of Iran. However, Ahmadinejad has a lot of animosity towards the Western culture and often uses it as a scapegoat for the nation’s problems. Ironically, he has been quoted deploring the British treatment of “protesters” in the still present riots. He believes the rioters are “unheard” “opposition” to the British government. To what ends are Ahmadinejad’s protectionist policies and high arrests of individuals who communicate with other nations? The brothers are essential to augmenting the AIDS crisis not only in Iran, but in neighboring Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Kamiar seems to be focused on getting his brother out of prison, but continues to follow his passion of helping AIDS carriers. After all, they consistently state that they have no political motives and are focused on health and science.
It is important to note that HIV has great ties to drug users. In Iran, 70% of people with AIDS are drug users. Iran has one of the largest populations of heroin and opium users in the world due to their proximity to Afghanistan. The Iranian taboo towards drug use violates all people suffering from HIV. Not only is the government preventing harms reduction for users, who face great chance of addiction because of the omnipresent supply of opium, but forcing the entire population to directly suffer. Allowing the brothers to work can only help save lives of patients, and reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS by tackling the various sources of the problem.
Please sign the petition here: http://iranfreethedocs.org/petition/