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     Volume 7 Issue 44 | November 7, 2008 |

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The Crime of being Kind

For over a decade, the brothers have worked in and promoted clinics to treat drug addicts and other vulnerable populations in prisons and in communities in Iran. Doctor Arash Alaei and Doctor Kamiar Alaei, two Iranian physicians have reportedly been detained in Iran by Iranian authorities. The physicians, who are brothers, were arrested at the end of June 2008 and their current whereabouts are unknown. They do not have access to lawyers and family, and have not been charged with any crime.
The two brothers Kamiar and Arash Alaei.

Doctor Arash Alaei and Doctor Kamiar Alaei have played a role in putting the issues of drug use and HIV/AIDS on Iran's national health care agenda. They have worked closely with the government and religious leaders to ensure support for education campaigns on HIV transmission, including those targeting youth, and for HIV and harm reduction programmes in prisons.

Iran has the world's highest rate of intravenous drug users - a phenomenon that drives the country's HIV/AIDS epidemic. The brothers' work has been supported by religious leaders and Iran's Ministry of Health, whose harm reduction programmes to treat injecting drug users have become models in the region and beyond.

Kamiar and Arash Alaei started a broad AIDS awareness and treatment programme in the Islamic republic. In the mid-1980s, Iranian officials viewed HIV/AIDS as a "Western disease" and were reluctant to acknowledge that it existed in Iran. But the disease was spreading among high-risk populations, especially drug addicts in prisons who reused dirty needles.

In 1999, the Alaei brothers learned of the high infection rate in a prison in their hometown of Kermanshah. With difficulty, they assembled community and government backing to treat the addicts and their family members.

The programme gradually spread to clinics in cities across Iran, giving out clean needles and condoms. Religious leaders in the holy city of Qom endorsed it. With opium flowing in from Afghanistan, Iran's rate of heroin use is high, and the risk presented by the use of unclean needles is enormous.

The World Health Organisation named the Alaei brothers' clinics the best-practice model for the Middle East and North Africa. The brothers held training courses for Afghan and Tajik medical workers.

Now they are believed to be held without charge in Tehran's Evin Prison. E'temad newspaper in Iran has

reported that the brothers are held on “suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government”. Amnesty International has expressed fears that their arrest may be politically motivated and based on the brothers' association with non-governmental organisations based in the US.
(Top) Despite international pressure the Iranian government remains mum about the fate of the two brothers.

Dr Arash Alaei was arrested by Iranian security forces on June 22. The following morning, they escorted him to his mother's house in Tehran, where they found his brother, Dr Kamiar Alaei, and arrested him too. They also seized documents belonging to the brothers.

Both doctors have travelled abroad as a result of their work, and Dr Kamiar Alaei is a doctoral candidate at the State University of New York (SUNY) Albany School of Public Health. He holds a Masters degree in International Health from Harvard University and was due to resume his studies in Albany later in 2008. Earlier this year, the US-based NGO, the Asia Society, named him as a Fellow, “one of 23 new Fellows identified as being among the most promising trendsetters and emerging leaders in the Asia-Pacific region.” Dr Arash Alaei is the former Director of the International Education and Research Cooperation of the Iranian National Research Institute of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease.

Neither man is known to have been involved in political activities. Iran's response to HIV/AIDS has been accorded international respect, particularly the preventative measures promoted by the two doctors. According to the 2008 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic (published by UNAIDS on 29 July 2008 and available at http://www.unaids.org/) “the… support for needle exchange projects in countries such as the Islamic Republic of Iran … serve as clear examples of courageous, visionary leadership in the response to HIV”. However, the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which took office in August 2005, has started to remove its support of such centres.

Although the physicians have still not been formally charged, the prosecutor investigating their case has stated in interviews with the Iranian press that they are suspected of fomenting a "velvet revolution." He has cited as evidence the fact that the Drs. Alaei have travelled to international AIDS conferences, drawn the attention of international non-governmental organisations, and recruited and trained people in public health.

Family, friends, and colleagues from around the world are deeply concerned for the brothers' well being.

Compiled from Physicians for Human Rights and Amnesty International

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008