It has been nine years since Iranian military aviation journalist Babak Taghvaee was arrested in his home country, accused of being a spy for a range of intelligence services. Forced to flee his native Iran and leave behind his beloved family, Babak has since lived a life many of us could not imagine.
Babak’s career in journalism began in 2005, when he gained attention for his articles on aviation forums: “I started writing about Iran’s aviation history in my native Persian. After three years of various freelance work, I was taken on as a correspondent for the Iranian Aviation Industries Magazine”. However, his work soon caught the eye of those in the United Kingdom where, after two or three months, Babak was contacted by the editor of a British military aviation magazine: “I offered him an article about Iran’s Military Day Parade in 2008 and he accepted. This is how I began writing in English”.
Babak went on to become a photojournalist and correspondent for a variety of publications. He also worked as a contractor for an Iranian defence company named ‘Tose’e Fannavaran-e Havapayeh’, meaning The Aviation Technology Developers. His job, he tells me, “was to advise a team of retired air force technicians, engineers and weapons experts on how to restore the combat capabilities of Iranian Air Force fighter jets”. He stresses: “nobody there, the commanders and especially the head of office, had a problem with me or my articles about the history of the Iranian Air Force”. However, company CEO Ataollah Bazargan, a retired Brigadier, “was extremely pro-regime and against anything which depicted the power of Iran before the Islamic revolution”.
In 1979, Iranian ruler Shah Mohammad Reza Phalavi, who had been in power since 1941, was overthrown and replaced with an Islamic Republic under the Grand Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini. The revolution marked an end to the Persian monarchy which had previously ruled for 2,500 years. The Grand Ayatollah would subsequently become the country’s Supreme Leader before being succeeded by Ali Khomeini after his death in 1989.
“Not only was I documenting the history of the military during the days of the Shah”, he tells me. “But I was also documenting fraud within the company to the Air Force. Bazargan was informed of this by his spies within the military”.
When the Iranian Air Force’s Strategic Research and Studies Office made Babak a supervisor for documenting the history of the Air Force, Barzagan was not happy: “He was furious and he automatically became my enemy, always doing his best to remove me”.
At an Air Force event in March 2012, photos of Babak, who was the only civilian at the event, reached Barzagan. The latter promptly ordered a representative of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence to report him as a spy: “I was fired from the Tose’e Fannavaran-e Havapayeh in April, banned from entering the premises of the Iranian Aviation Industries Organisation in August before finally being detained in September”.
Babak’s arrest took place in the North of Iran, next to Noshahar Airport. He was seized by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s bodyguards after he had photographed helicopters taking part in a ceremony nearby. “I was handed over to the police where they checked out my background. It showed I was wanted by the Ministry of Intelligence of the Regime in the city of Tehran for unknown reasons”, he tells me. “I was subsequently transported to the city of Sari where I was detained for several days”. Babak was then transferred to a number of detention centres in Evin prison, Tehran, where he encountered “journalists, opposition activists, famous businessmen, and even former members of the Ministry who had been detained on charges of espionage”.
His accusations were fierce: “The Ministry accused me of being a spy for a foreign country. They chose England, meaning I was assumed to be a member of MI6”. He was further tried as a suspected member of Mossad (the Israeli national intelligence agency) and the CIA. “This is what they do to opponents of the regime”, he tells me. “If they want to have someone removed from society, they do it under false accusations”.
He details his experiences of detention: “the common practice of the Iranian intelligence organisations is to keep a new arrestee in solitary confinement prior to letting them join other detainees. As punishment, they imprison those arrested for political reasons alongside dangerous criminals. It is a method of psychological torture”. This was something Babak encountered in every detention centre. “In order for me to be released on bail I had to confess to something illegal”, he tells me. “Because I had done nothing I had to make something up”. Despite doing so, Babak’s fabricated confessions would never succeed in securing his release.
Upon imprisonment in Tehran, Babak’s email address was hacked: “they had all of my emails that I had exchanged with non-Iranian individuals. They wanted me to say every single one of them were spies of foreign countries when in fact they were family, friends, and work colleagues”. He was also threatened with torture: “I heard people being physically tortured. The common method was 100 lashes at the bottom of each foot. I heard prisoners screaming over the pain but, because I was a journalist, they couldn’t torture me – perhaps they were afraid to do so”.
Human rights organisations have long highlighted the dangers of journalism in Iran. Reporters Without Borders, a non-profit organisation that campaigns for the freedom of information, says: “Iran has been one of the world’s most repressive countries for journalists for the past 40 years”, estimating at least 860 journalists have been imprisoned or executed since 1979. The most recent high-profile incident occurred last year when Ruhollah Zam, an Iranian journalist and activist accused of inciting nationwide protests in 2017, was executed on December 12th 2020.
Babak was released on bail to the equivalent of almost $200,000 USD before subsequently fleeing Iran in August 2013 after his second court session.
Tragically, he was forced to leave his family. “I can’t get back to see them”, he tells me. “But before the Covid-19 pandemic I would meet them every year in Dubai or Athens”. Should he choose to return, he would be sentenced to death: “When I left I was only accused of being a spy for MI6. But now I am accused of cooperation with the US State Department and Mossad. If I return, I will be executed”.
After leaving Iran, Babak suffered from fierce Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and extreme bouts of paranoia: “I couldn’t trust anyone. I was always thinking I was being followed and would become a victim of assassination”. He adds: “it was so stressful for me. The regime told my family they were monitoring my every move when I was in Malaysia. I had the highest level of security with 12 guards protecting the area”.
However, since then Babak has continued a distinguished career as an aviation journalist and author. He travels across the world, writing and reporting on what he loves while composing a number of books on the war on terror and the Iranian aviation industry.
As our interview comes to an end, Babak finishes with a powerful sentiment: “Human life is short, so try to keep a good name throughout your life so people will remember you well after your death. I urge everyone to stand up to lies, deception, and wrongdoing, even if doing so costs you a lot”.