Joanna Palani, a 23 year old fighter of the YPJ, the famous Kurd “Women’s protection unit”, is currently detained in Denmark, presumably for terrorism. The YPJ is an all-female brigade of the Syrian Kurdish forces, engaged in the fight against ISIS.
In a video posted to Facebook on Wednesday, Palani says she is currently in prison in Denmark. She says she doesn’t know for how long, but “it could be two years.”
“I need your help to spread the news that the YPJ is not a terrorist organization,” she pleads.
The YPJ is part of the YPG (also known as the People’s protection unit), which is the armed force of the Kurdish Region of Rojava in Western Syria. They have been widely recognized as instrumental in the fight against ISIS in Ìraq and Syria. They most notably played an important role in taking back Kobane from terrorist control in 2015.
Palani is a Danish student, born in a refugee camp in Iraq. She comes from an Iranian Kurd family of Peshmerga fighters (the armed force of Iraq Kurds). Last year, she abandoned her studies in Copenhagen to fight with the Peshmergas and with the YPJ.
Both organizations are significantly backed by the US and generally acknowledged as legitimate military units. However, when Palani returned to Denmark while on permission after fighting for a year, she was forbidden to leave the country and her passport was confiscated.
Danish police told the Russian channel RT that Palani was suspected of wanting to leave the country to participate in activities that could threaten Denmark’s national security. She hasn’t been able to return to the YPJ since. The only information about her arrest to date is the short video she filmed herself.
The confiscation of her passport, and, presumably, her subsequent detention, are supported by legislation intended to stop Danish citizens from joining jihadist groups abroad. Some argue that Denmark is courting Turkey’s help to keep refugees out of the EU and, therefore, included the YPJ, a group Turkey doesn’t like, as a group to watch out for.
David Romano, a political science professor at Missouri State University, formerly of REMO, the réseau du Moyen-Orient du CERIUM (Université de Montréal), told Forget the Box that he can’t speak to Danish motivations as it would simply be “speculating about behind-closed-doors Turkish pressure” but did have this to say about YPJ/YPG:
“In the court of public opinion, they are certainly pretty legitimate — empowering women, protecting minorities, fighting ISIS, etc… The U.S. does back them, so that is an indirect indicator as well. High level U.S. officials meet publicly with YPG leaders, and U.S. special forces are embedded with them (along with many Western volunteers). Russia calls for them (via their political parent, the PYD) to be included in peace talks on Syria, and only Turkish objections prevent this.”
Homa Hoodfar, a professor of anthropology at Concordia University, is currently held in the infamous Evin prison charged with “co-operating with a foreign state against the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Her family hasn’t been allowed to contact her and received no explanation about the charges brought against her. The same goes for her lawyer. While Ottawa is insisting that the case is a priority for them, they have been tight-lipped about it.
The Iranian born anthropologist has been living Montreal for thirty years, and was traveling back both to see family and for professional purposes. Relatives stated that she “was in Iran conducting historical and ethnographic research on women’s public role. Her visit coincided with the elections in Iran, during which many new women candidates were elected to the parliament.” Professor Hoodfar is a leading expert on gender and sexuality in Islam.
She was intercepted by the counter-intelligence of the Iranian Revolutionary guards in March, a few days before she was set to leave the country. Her passport, her personal computer and her cellphone were confiscated. She was released on bail and her family had been trying to get her out of the country since then, to no avail. In the months that followed, authorities repeatedly interrogated her without a lawyer present. Three days ago, she was arrested again and sent to the Evin prison.
Nicknamed Evin University because of the high number of scholars, students and journalists detained there, the Evin prison is famous for the torture and inhumane conditions it subjects its detainees to. Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian-Iranian freelance photo-reporter, died there in 2003, after being raped and severely beaten. It was one of the first cases to bring international attention to the horrific human rights abuses in Iranian prisons. Hoodfar’s sister declared to The Guardian that she is especially worried because Hoodfar suffers from a rare neurological disease (Myasthenia Gravis) and needs constant medication.
Crackdown on Dual Citizens
Although Homa Hoodfar is of Iranian, Canadian and Irish nationality, she has been refused consular assistance because Iran does not recognize dual citizenship. The hard-liners of Iran’s Islamic system distrust foreigners, especially dual citizens, who can travel to the country without visas.
In fact, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards – a national police force tasked with protecting the country’s Islamic system- had been systematically targeting them for several months. Analysts believe it’s an effort to undermine President Rohani’s policy of opening the country’s borders.
Hadi Ghaemi, from the New York-based international campaign for human rights in Iran (ICHRI), has no doubt that “these arrests are politically motivated.” He told The Guardian that “Ms Hoodfar is a very respected academic who has hugely contributed to the Iranian civil society by her research and trainings. [The arrest] reflects a security and intelligence apparatus out of control in Iran. They are snatching and detaining people without cause and with total impunity, creating a virtual quarantine of Iranian society so that they may more firmly hold it in their grip.”
A Diplomatic Mess
Some experts believe that the detained dual citizens could serve as bargaining chips for Tehran in eventual prisoner swaps. Last January, four Iranian-Americans (including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian) were released in exchange for seven Iranians charged in the U.S for violating sanctions.
Iran has been demanding for years the extradition of Mahmmoud Reza Khavari, an Iranian who took refuge in Toronto. Iranian Ministry of Justice suspects Khavari of participating in a two-million dollars finance scandal. The minister publicly reiterated the extradition demand, shortly after Hoodfar’s case was made public.
Canada had cut all diplomatic ties with Tehran in 2012. In a controversial move, Canada lifted long-standing economic sanctions against Iran last February, but the reopening of an embassy could take a couple more years.
Foreign Affair Minister Stéphane Dion said that Canadian officials “are working closely with our like-minded allies in order to best assist Dr. Hoodfar.” His spokesperson added that they couldn’t give details on the government actions due to confidentiality concerns, but asserted that they were “actively engaged” in the case.
According to CBC news, Hoodfar’s niece, Amanda Ghahremani, doesn’t share those “confidentiality concerns.” As a fellow at the Canadian Centre for International Justice, she would have preferred the government be more open about the actions in progress.
But apparently, the government wanted to keep even this bit of information out of the public eye. When the professor’s family first got in touch with Canada’s Department of Global Affairs, they were reportedly advised to keep the story out of the media. Meanwhile, the Department would try to repatriate Hoodfar via “some back-door channels.”
Two months later, Hoodfar is in jail. Understandably worried that the back-door channels aren’t working, the family issued a press release on Wednesday.
This doesn’t mean that we have to sit on our hands while we wait to know more about Ottawa’s progress. The impact of public attention and pressure on human rights abuse cases should not be underestimated. Amnesty International’s 50 successful campaigns of 2015 testify to that.
A petition was started to “call on the international community, including the Canadian Government, the United Nations, the Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, as well as Canadian NGOs to pressure the Iranian government in order to secure the release of Professor Hoodfar.” You can sign it via Avaaz.