By Mina Rasheed, Tehran (Source: Mianeh)
Iran's latest official statistics show that more than 18,000 people in the country are infected with the HIV virus - but the real number could be far higher.
"According to a statement by the World Health Organisation, we have to multiply this figure four or five times to reach the real figure of those infected with AIDS in Iran," warned Masoud Mardani, a member of the AIDS National Committee.
It is hard to talk about HIV or AIDS in Iran because of the widespread assumption that the virus is directly related to sex outside marriage - which is forbidden. In reality, according to Dr Minou Mohraz, a member of the National Committee for Fighting AIDS, only 20 per cent of AIDS patients were originally infected through sexual intercourse.
AIDS, however, is not just a social taboo; it has also become a political and security issue.
In June 2008, two brothers who were pioneers in the fight against AIDS in Iran were arrested and charged with having contacts with "hostile governments".
Arash Alaei had been the manager of a health research institute, while Kamyar Alaei was doing a PhD in general health at New York State University.
The brothers had also written a five-year plan for tackling AIDS on a national level - a first for Iran.
In August, the deputy prosecutor of Tehran, Hasan Haddad, accused them of "attempting to overthrow" the Islamic Republic, although he did not mention their names.
"They attempted to organise conferences such as those for AIDS and through these gatherings they attempted to recruit people, send them abroad and train them to overthrow [the Islamic Republic]," he said, according to ISNA news agency.
On January 20 of this year, the Revolutionary Court of Iran sentenced Arash to six years and Kamyar to three years in jail.
The director of the anti-espionage department of the Iranian intelligence ministry told a news conference the brothers had played a key role in an anti-government network whose members had been rounded up. Their confessions would soon be broadcast on state TV and radio, the official added. The media did not disclose his name.
The brothers started their work with HIV/AIDS in 1998 after news was leaked that 100 prisoners in the Central Prison of Kermanshah had been infected with the virus. The following year, they opened a clinic in Kermanshah, a predominately Kurdish province in the west of Iran, to combat the spread of the virus and tackle hepatitis and drug addiction. As the clinic's work expanded, the two brothers moved to Tehran.
Back in February 2007, Health Minister Kamran Baqeri Lankarani announced the discovery of a new AIDS medicine - IMOD.
According to the Mehr news agency, Lankarani said it complemented other anti-viral drugs, and was especially useful when AIDS symptoms were starting to show. IMOD strengthened the body's immune system, he said, helping increase the length and quality of patients' lives.
"This new medicine is based on herbal medicine, and while all other previous medications used around the world for treating AIDS have had side effects, this new medicine does not have any serious side effects," Lankarani said.
But Arash Alaei had a very different view - and had already protested against the use of this medicine.
"In the past three days, we have seen extensive propaganda about the discovery of new medications for fighting AIDS in all the mass media. These reports have mentioned that the medicine has been tested over the past five years in labs, on animals and on human beings," he said in 2007 in an article in Shargh, a newspaper that has since been shut down.
"The question that comes to mind is whether ... a medicine has ever been discovered which has undergone tests ... and yet no scientific or research journals have ever published any article about the results."
Arash Alaei also disputed the minister's claims that IMOD had no side effects.
The brothers had also attended conferences at the Aspen Institute in United States, along with other health researchers from around the world.
Toni Verstandig, a member of the institute who met the brothers, told Radio Farda, "The Alaei brothers attended two of the conferences of this institute in November 2006 and October 2007 in Washington and Colorado." According to her, they discussed health issues in Iran at the conference.
Eight months after the second conference, they were arrested and charged with attempting to overthrow the state.
In December, their lawyer, Masoud Shafiee, told the International Human Rights Campaign in Iran that his clients had been charged under article 508 of the Islamic penal code, which states, "Any person or group that cooperates with foreign hostile governments in any way against the Islamic Republic of Iran will be sentenced from one to 10 years in jail if they are not known to have been combatants."
The same month, human rights groups, including Amnesty International, used the World AIDS Day to ask Iran to release them. But the brothers remain in Tehran's Evin prison.
Mina Rasheed is the pseudonym of a journalist in Tehran.
About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (iwpr.net) the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic society that is Iran today.
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