Sentenced to Death in Iran
A Jewish grandmother is denied asylum in the Netherlands. She is hoping for a Purim miracle.
The holiday of Purim commemorates the decree of death on the Jewish people in ancient Persia and the miraculous way they were saved. For one Persian Jewish woman today, the threat of execution is very real: sentenced to death in her native Iran, she is trying desperately to obtain asylum in the Netherlands. Her life hangs in balance.
“Sipora” (her real name is too dangerous to use), 60, is a teacher, and the matriarch in an incredibly brave Jewish family in Iran, the present-day name of the ancient kingdom of Persia. Despite the fact that Iran routinely threatens to destroy Israel and that “death to Israel” is a common chant at Iranian political rallies, Iran is home to over 8,000 Jews, the largest Jewish community outside of Israel and Turkey in the Middle East. Persian Jews trace their history in the country back thousands of years, to the time of the First Temple in Jerusalem, and Sipora’s family is part of that illustrious heritage.
In addition to teaching, Sipora ran a clandestine organization that helped battered wives whose husbands refused to give them a divorce find a safe place to stay. Her crucial work ran afoul of Iran’s draconian religious authorities.
Sipora’s daughter Rebecca was also an activist, striking out bravely on her own to help people in Iran. In the early 2000s, Rebecca helped make a documentary film about calls for democracy in Iran. Fearing arrest, Rebecca fled Iran in 2010. She arrived in the Netherlands, which granted her political asylum and later citizenship.
In 2012, Rebecca gave birth to her first child and Sipora flew to the Netherlands to be with her and help her out caring for a newborn. She said what she thought would be a temporary goodbye to her husband of over 40 years, a Jewish builder who has a heart condition who remained back home in Iran. That visit to her daughter might have saved Sipora’s life.
“A few weeks after I came to Holland,” Sipora explained to journalists, “I called my husband on the telephone. He asked me to go on Skype. I knew something was wrong.” Online, her husband told her that Iran’s feared and brutal secret police were looking for her. “In that moment I knew there is no going back,” Sipora realized.
For those accused of crimes in Iran, there is often little recourse to lawyers or hope of mercy. Human Rights Watch notes that “Iranian courts, and particularly revolutionary courts, regularly fell short of providing fair trials and allegedly used confessions obtained under torture as evidence in court.”
Sipora remained in the Netherlands, in the city of Utrecht, and was tried in absentia in Tehran for her work in helping battered wives. In 2013, Sipora was found guilty of “violating Islamic rules (of the) Islamic Revolution”. She was sentenced to death by public execution.
Trapped in the Netherlands, Sipora applied for political asylum Her request was denied. In recent years, anti-immigrant sentiment has been rising in the Netherlands. In the country’s 2017 general election, the far-right Freedom Party won the second highest number of votes; its leader, Geert Wilders pledges to ban immigrants from Muslim-majority nations such as Iran.
While Sipora’s asylum application has been turned down, the authorities have not yet deported her either, despite being aware of her location. Sipora could always move to Israel but thinks that would be too dangerous for her husband. “I could leave for Israel tomorrow, but then my husband’s fate is sealed,” she has explained. “For a Jewish family to flee for Holland is one thing, but if I go to Israel he will pay the price for what will be seen as collaboration with the enemy.”
In the meantime, Sipora remains with her daughter’s family in Utrecht, unsure whether the authorities will decide to deport her back to certain death in Iran. Her next appearance before an immigration service judge is Shushan Purim, the day following Purim, March 2, 2018.
Sipora has become involved in the local Jewish community, particularly with Chabad of Utrecht. Speaking with Aish.com, Rebbetzin Bracha Heintz, the co-director of Chabad of Utrecht, explains that in the years she’s been in Utrecht, Sipora has become like “family”. Rebbetzin Heintz and her husband Rabbi Aryeh Leib Heintz visit Sipora and her daughter often, share meals with the family, celebrate Jewish holidays together, and have become close. Rabbi and Rebbetzin Heintz have also coordinated donations to help the family financially and have helped lobby the authorities on behalf of Sipora’s petitions to stay in the country.
“She’s a positive and polite person,” local Jewish resident Erik Veldhuizen said. “A few of us are of course aware of her situation, but you’d never know that she’s in dire straits by her demeanor.”
Sipora’s husband is under intense police scrutiny and she fears she may never see him again.
As Jews around the world celebrate Purim, Sipora and her family are confident she will be saved from certain death like the Jews of Persia. “Just like in Purim,” Sipora’s daughter Rebecca explains, “it will all work out in the end. It just has to.”
Rebbetzin Heintz believes it is no coincidence that Sipora’s plight is finally gaining international attention now, during the Purim season. For years, Sipora donated her time and labor to help the Utrecht Jewish community celebrate Purim with her elaborate meals. Now, as she faces a date with an immigration judge, Sipora hopes that Purim will become the season of her deliverance as well.