An Iranian-born American citizen who converted to Mormonism says he was imprisoned and tortured by the Iranian government for his religious beliefs — and he wants the world to know about it.
Ghollam Nikbin, baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake County in 1982, alleges Iranian officials detained him in Iran in the mid-1990s, apparently after finding his baptismal certificate.
On Tuesday, Nikbin filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., accusing the Iranian government and two high-ranking former government leaders of torture, assault and battery.
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The charges in the complaint are civil, rather than criminal, meaning Nikbin can only pursue a monetary remedy. But he said this case is not about money.
“I want the world to hear my voice, and know what they did to me,” Nikbin said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “I want no other human in Iran to suffer what they did to me.”
Another goal is “to call attention to the terrible abuses that are occurring in Iran,” said his attorney, Joshua Sondheimer, litigation director for the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability.
The center uses U.S. courts to prosecute human-rights violations around the world. Last year, the center won a judgment for a Bosnian Muslim in Salt Lake City against a Bosnian Serb living in Atlanta.
Nikbin — who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1991 — says his ordeal began in 1994 at his wedding party in Mashhad, an Iranian holy city. The Munkerat and Mafasad Society, a government agency charged with enforcing strict Islamic morals, raided the party and observed boys dancing with their mothers, according to Nikbin’s lawsuit.
Government agents arrested Nikbin, his father-in-law and 27 other guests. Nikbin was sentenced to 40 lashes with a leather whip.
During the next year, Nikbin spoke out against the Iranian government, but eventually decided to flee his native country for his own safety.
On May 28, 1995, Nikbin was arrested at the Tehran airport and taken to a 4-by-12-foot cell, where he was held for one month and interrogated about his conversion to Mormonism. Leaving the Islamic faith is considered a crime under Iranian law, according to the lawsuit.
Nikbin initially denied his conversion, but Iranian officials later displayed his baptismal certificate, apparently confiscated from his home, according to the lawsuit.
In subsequent interrogations, Nikbin was allegedly beaten on the head and forced to lie on his back with his legs in the air so that his tormentors could strike his soles with an electrical cord.
The next month, Nikbin was transferred from Tehran to another location, where a Muslim cleric informed him that he had been sentenced to die by decapitation for converting to another faith, the lawsuit states.
“Anytime I heard someone walking close to me, I thought they were going to take me to cut my head off,” Nikbin said.
On one occasion, he was hung upside down by his feet for several hours while being questioned about his and others’ conversion to Mormonism.
He “also could hear the screams and cries of others being tortured and often heard female prisoners crying,” states the lawsuit. “He saw many men come in and out of nearby holding cells who had been severely beaten, showing open wounds, lacerations and broken teeth.”
In November 1995, Nikbin was taken to a mental hospital and forcibly medicated with drugs that put him into a catatonic state, according to the lawsuit.
A month later, he was moved to a city jail, where he remained for three years before his family secured his release by paying bribes and pleading for mercy on account of his deteriorating health.
He immediately fled to the United States. With the help of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, he was able to send for his wife and daughter.
Nikbin, 56, said he continues to suffer physical pain and depression as a result of his 3 1/2 years in captivity.
The lawsuit names as defendants the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. It also names two Iranian officials, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who served as Iran’s president from 1989 to 1997, and Ali Akbar Fallahian Khuzestani, who was Iran’s security minister during the same period.
Nikbin is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages under the federal Torture Victim Protection Act, which allows U.S. residents to sue foreigners who commit torture, and the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which allows “sponsors of terrorism” to be sued for torture and terrorist acts.
The State Department considers Iran a “state sponsor of terrorism.”
LDS Church spokesman Dale Bills said the church had just received a copy of the complaint Tuesday and had no comment.
Nikbin first came to the United States in 1975 on a university scholarship. He earned an MBA at Long Island University in 1979 and went to work for Merrill Lynch in New York City.
That same year, Islamic fundamentalists under Ayatollah Khomeini gained power in Iran.
Nikbin remained in the United States and in 1982 married an American woman in Salt Lake County who was a member of the LDS Church. He was baptized a Mormon in the Murray East Stake one month before their wedding.
They divorced in 1984. Nine years later, Nikbin moved back to Iran to be closer to his family, according to his lawsuit.
He now lives in the United States with his second wife and their 8-year-old daughter, whom he hopes someday to baptize into the Mormon church.
Still fearing for his safety, he asked that his city and state of residence not be disclosed.