THERE WERE TIMES in Iran’s notorious Evin prison that Saeed Malekpour, a death sentence hanging over his head, would shut his eyes and dream of being back on Vancouver Island.
Even after being tortured, even after 11 years behind bars, he never lost faith in his return.
And so it came to pass that within a couple of months of his dramatic escape from Iran in August 2019, there he was back on Mount Washington, soaking in the forest, breathing the clean, clear air.
“I think the most beautiful hiking trails in the world are on the Island,” he says.
His sister Maryam Malekpour joined him on that trip, of course. She took a picture of Saeed with a bird perched on his open hand — a re-creation of a photo used by human rights activists during the campaign to free him.
Maryam had been a vital part of that campaign, the one who fought the longest and hardest for her big brother’s freedom.
“When I took the same photo of him,” she says, “I think that was the moment I realized it was real.”
As we celebrate Family Day, theirs is a story worth telling.
Saeed had already built a reputation as a hotshot software designer in his native Iran when he came to Canada in 2004 with his wife, who wanted to study in the West.
By the time they moved to Victoria in 2006, they had gained permanent-resident status. Here, he freelanced doing website work while she finished her doctorate in medical nanotechnology and taught at UVic.
They were keen on the outdoors, skiing Mount Washington, swimming the Sooke Potholes, strolling Cadboro Bay beach, hiking Mount Doug. Their Saanich landlords, Rita Wittman and Jim Rogers, described the couple as friendly, fun-loving, compassionate and helpful, the kind of tenants who would shovel the driveway unbidden, or help in the garden.
By 2008, Saeed had plans to take his master’s degree at UVic. That dream disappeared that October when, two days after returning to Iran to be with his dying father, he was arrested on pornography charges.
His supporters say those accusations were nonsense. All he had done was design open-source photo-sharing software that was used, without his knowledge, to upload porn. The real story, they said, is that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — the muscle behind Iran’s clerical regime — was clamping down on computer use by Iran’s restive young people and was eager to send them a message.
The international digital-rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation put it like this: “Arresting a coder living in the West and accusing them of being a foreign spy running a Persian language porn network was intended to paint the ‘Net as a channel for corrupt Western influence — and to demonstrate that no one, not even coders living in a foreign country, could escape punishment.”
Saeed was thrown into prison in Tehran, where he was beaten, kept in solitary confinement for a year and tortured into a forced confession — one he recanted in a letter smuggled out of jail.
He was sentenced to death in 2010, but that was commuted to life two years later. His marriage crumbled. He suffered a heart attack.
“I lost the best part of my life,” he said last week, on the phone from Vancouver, where he and his sister now live. “I was 33 years old. I had a wife. I had a good job. I had admission to UVic in a field I loved. I had a good future.”
He wasn’t the only one whose life was turned upside down. In Tehran, Maryam campaigned for her brother’s release so strenuously that in 2012, facing arrest, she fled to Canada.
She ended up in the Lower Mainland, a young woman all alone in a foreign land, her life dedicated to rattling the chains of politicians and working with human rights groups on what became a noisy and high-profile international campaign to win Saeed’s release.
In the end, his freedom came via an escape that took Maryam two years to put into motion. It’s still best to gloss over some of the details of a cloak-and-dagger story involving surreptitious communications, untraceable phones, fake IDs and a long, dangerous journey to the Turkish frontier. Not even their mother in Tehran knew what was going on (though she’s now happy her son is free).
It was all set up to kick in when Saeed won a week-long furlough from prison. “I didn’t sleep for a week,” Maryam says of the run-up to his release.
She flew to Turkey to meet her brother after he crossed the border, only to see him grilled by security forces as they attempted to fly out of the Ankara airport.
“I was so scared. I thought they were going to arrest him.” But, bolstered by the presence of a couple of officials from the Canadian embassy, which had been teed up to supply Saeed with travel documents, the siblings were able to depart. When they landed at Vancouver airport, the story shot around the world.
The thing is, it wasn’t an easy adjustment. “When I first came back to Canada, for two weeks I couldn’t sleep,” Saeed says. He would spend his nights wandering the banks of the Fraser River in New Westminster, where they lived.
“At the beginning it was hard for both of us,” Maryam says. Saeed had no job. Maryam had no resources beyond her own income as a construction manager.
She also found that once her brother was finally free, all the trauma she had kept at bay came crashing in. It was simultaneously the happiest and darkest time she had ever seen. “I’ve never been that depressed in my life.”
But life gradually got better. Saeed enrolled at BCIT to upgrade his computer skills (“In IT, if you don’t work for one year, you don’t know anything. I didn’t work for 12”), then got on as a development operations engineer with a Toronto-based software company.
He reconnected with old friends, including Wittman and Rogers, whom he spoke to by phone. “They did a lot for my campaign. I wish, after this COVID, that I can visit them.”
Maryam emerged, too. “For the first time in my life, I’m experiencing life as a normal person,” she says. She sounds happy to be enjoying what Canadians take for granted. “I always tell my non-Iranian friends: ‘You have to be thankful for what you have here.”
Saeed sure is. “Everything is beautiful and the people are nice.”
Even after recounting what he lost over those 11 years, he strikes a note of optimism: “I’m sure if I work hard … I can get everything back.”
He is grateful to Maryam, the sister who refused to let him die in prison. She is proud of the brother who refused to give up when it seemed his life was ruined.
“It was a long journey, but it had a happy ending,” she says. He’s free as a bird.