Tuesday, February 06, 2007
Mormon convert says Iran tortured him
By Robert Gehrke
The Salt Lake Tribune
Article Last Updated: 02/03/2007 01:38:26 AM MST
WASHINGTON - Iranian-born Ghollam Nikbin says he is nearing the
justice he has longed for since he sued Iran and its former president
in federal court three years ago, alleging he was tortured for
converting to Mormonism.
In a federal court hearing Friday, Nikbin testified in graphic
detail about the abuse he endured for several years in Iran for
abandoning Islam. He and experts also testified about the lingering
effects, which include almost nightly nightmares.
The hearing was a formality. Iran has not answered the claims,
and Nikbin is assured victory.
He is seeking about $40 million in damages.
Whether he will collect remains uncertain, but Nikbin is optimistic.
"I'm going to get justice," he told The Tribune after the
hearing. "All the money is going to be spent for destroying the
Islamic Republic of Iran" and the men who tortured him.
Nikbin's story began in 1975, when he came to the United States on
a scholarship. He earned an MBA and landed a job at Merrill Lynch in
New York City in 1979, the same year a revolution in Iran installed a
strict theocracy there.
He fell in love with a Utah woman who was a member of The Church
of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He converted to the faith and
was baptized in Murray. He and the woman married in 1982. They
divorced in 1985, but NikÂbin stayed and became a U.S. citizen in
Two years later, he returned to Iran to be with his family. His
mother and sister arranged a marriage for him, but the Munkerat, a
government agency that enforces Islamic law, raided the ceremony after
agents spied young boys dancing with their mothers, a violation of
Nikbin says he was lashed 40 times and suffered cuts all over his body.
From that moment, he said, "It was in my blood, the hate for that
He spoke out against the government wherever he went. As he was
returning to America in 1995, he was detained at the airport and taken
to a prison.
"They questioned me that I change my religion and I deny it,"
Nikbin said. Days later interrogators confronted him with a Mormon
baptism certificate they likely found in his home.
His captors bound his bare feet and whipped them with an
electrical cord until his feet were bloodied and numb, he says. He
couldn't walk for days, he testified.
Weeks later, he was brought before a cleric, who pronounced
death by beheading.
"Every time I heard someone walking in the [prison] hallway, I
thought, 'It was my turn,' " Nikbin testified.
After months in prison, friends suggested he fake mental illness
so he could claim he was insane when he converted and he might be
spared. Nikbin was sent to an asylum, forcibly drugged and left in a
stupor. He was shipped to another jail, where he nearly died before
his brother and friends bought his freedom, he said.
Nikbin fled Iran in 1998 but he was tortured again, by guards
at the airport.
Back in the United States, Nikbin started a desperate campaign to
get his family out of Iran, eventually succeeding with help from Sen.
Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Today, Nikbin suffers severe mental scars from his time in
captivity, psychiatrist Howard Berens testified. He is depressed,
moody and withdrawn. He fears for his safety and sometimes suffers
"I do have a nightmare every night," Nikbin said. "On the street .
. . on the subway, if my mind goes where it's not supposed to go, my
tears come out without my control."
The tears also came out after the hearing Friday when he talked
about his daughter, now 12, a straight-A student who lives with his
ex-wife. He said he lives in fear the Iranian government might kill
In another U.S. District Court room Friday, a judge heard from an
Iranian seeking $1.2 billion, claiming Iranian agents assassinated his
prominent grandfather and took his fortune.
Iran won't fight the cases, but collecting damages is difficult,
said Sean Murphy, a professor of international law at George
Washington University. Most countries cannot be sued under
international law, but U.S. law has an exception for Iran and others
deemed sponsors of terrorism by the State Department.
When the lawsuits were first allowed, some plaintiffs were able to
recover damages by locating Iranian assets left in the United States,
but those were quickly tapped out.
"It's a tough situation, because often these are compelling
stories and you say, 'Wow, they should be able to get some
compensation.' But there's not much there to get, so in most cases
they aren't vindicated," Murphy said.
Judge John Bates will likely award damages to Nikbin this spring
or summer. Nikbin's attorney, William Pepper, said he is certain
Nikbin will collect his judgment by finding Iranian holdings in other
countries and getting foreign courts to recognize the U.S. ruling.
"The process is effective if you know how to do it," said
Pepper. "Most American lawyers just don't know how to do it."
But Murphy said foreign courts are unlikely to recognize the
U.S. exception to Iran's immunity.
Today, Nikbin lives with a brother in New York City. The effects
of his ordeal, he said, make holding a job difficult. He currently
works at a friend's nightclub.