By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
Houshang Shahbazi, the Iranian airline captain who saved the lives of more than 100 passengers and crew by making an emergency landing in Tehran, says he’s been forced into early retirement.
"‘You can return to work under certain conditions.’ They said, ‘You have to commit yourself not to engage in social work anymore.’ I refused,” says Iranian pilot Houshang Shahbazi.
“Authorities in charge have [prevented] me from flying and have confined me at home under the excuse that I have portrayed flights by Iranian airlines as unsafe,” Shahbazi was quoted as saying October 15 by Iranian news agencies.
The 56-year-old Shahbazi says he still has nine years left before the end of his career as a pilot. He adds that authorities had repeatedly asked him to stop his public efforts against the U.S. sanctions that ban Iran from buying spare parts for its aging civilian airline fleet
“[Officials] told me, ‘You can return to work under certain conditions.’ They said, ‘You have to commit yourself not to engage in social work anymore.’ I refused,” Shahbazi says, adding that he doesn’t think he has done anything wrong.
Shahbazi became a national hero last October following his miraculous landing of a Boeing-727 at Tehran’s Mehrabad airport after the plane's front landing gear jammed.
A video posted on YouTube captured the graceful landing of the crippled plane on only its rear wheels. The plane, which was returning from Moscow with 94 passengers and 19 crew members onboard, landed safely. No one was injured.
The incident highlighted the impact of sanctions on the Islamic republic, which routinely declares that it can survive and flourish despite the heavy financial penalties.
During a television interview following his aviation achievement, Shabazi said many Iranians both inside and outside the country had expressed their gratitude to him through e-mails and online messages.
“Can you believe it? I have received more than 11,000 e-mails," he said. "I can’t even check my mail anymore because it [crashes]. It’s been very important for them. People are very wise; they understand these things. “
Iranian authorities were apparently less enthusiastic. The hero pilot complained to the daily “Etemad” a few days after the landing that authorities had not even called him to express their gratitude for his life-saving actions.
“Etemad” reported then that state-controlled television had repeatedly broadcast a video of a sheep in a small Iranian village giving birth to triplet lambs instead of “properly” covering Shahbazi’s spectacular landing.
Shahbazi eventually did meet with officials, who publicly expressed their appreciation and praised his heroic actions.
Since then, he's used his fame to launch an online campaign against U.S. sanctions that taraget Iran’s air industry. In recent years, several hundred Iranians have lost their lives in plane crashes reportedly caused by the country’s inability to update its planes - many of which were purchased before the 1979 revolution.
In a September video message in English posted on YouTube, Shahbazi called on U.S. President Barack Obama to reconsider sanctions that he said are endangering the lives of Iranians.
“Mr. Obama, I hope you act upon your famous motto of ‘change’ and [put] politics aside, consider human rights standards, and lift the sanctions on sales of civilian airliners and spare parts, to save people’s lives,” he said.
Shahbazi told Iranian media this week that his participation in a March session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva had angered officials from Iran Air, who announced his retirement three months ago.
“The government gave me during the past year only 10 golden coins as a reward, then they left me,” he said. “They complain that the elite are leaving the country. It’s obvious: When they don’t get proper treatment, they have no choice but to leave the country.”
Still, Shahbazi said he plans to remain in Iran despite several job offers from abroad.
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