- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 9, 2003

TEHRAN — The studious, brown-haired sisters finally worked up the courage to escape.

On Tuesday morning last week, they pretended to be too sick to go to school. As soon as their father left the house, they fled into the vast city where their father had brought them from Belgium against their will.

“Mommy, we’re scared. What should we do?” Yasmine, 15, asked her mom in a desperate phone call to Belgium.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” her mother, Dr. Zahra Pourhashemi, told them. “Just don’t go back. You’ve done the hardest part.”

She told them to head for the Belgian Embassy.

Using the few words of Farsi they’d picked up over the past few months and a bit of pocket money, the two sisters found their way inside the embassy and into an explosive diplomatic storm.

Yasmine and her 6-year-old sister, Sara, both born and raised in Belgium, were tricked into coming to Iran three months ago by their father, Shahab Salaami. Their desperate mother has been struggling to get them back.

Under Iran’s laws, although the Pourhashemi girls had never lived in Iran, they’re considered Iranian nationals because their father is an Iranian citizen.

“The situation is difficult,” Jacques Vermeulen, the Belgian ambassador, told a reporter from Le Soir, a Belgian daily. “We consider them Belgians. The Iranian position is that they’re Iranians.”

Louis Michel, Belgium’s minister of foreign affairs, told reporters he had contacted his Iranian counterpart, Kamal Kharrazi.

He also appeared at a news conference with Dr. Pourhashemi and assured her he’d do everything he could to get her daughters back.

Mr. Kharrazi, for his part, told Mr. Michel that the girls would be subject to Iranian law.

“Although the family holds Iranian and Belgian dual nationalities, they are considered as Iranian and will be treated according to the current laws of the Islamic republic,” Iran’s official news agency quoted Mr. Kharrazi as telling Mr. Michel by telephone.

“Iran’s Foreign Ministry is now trying to find a legal solution to the problem that would be acceptable to the family of the girls.”

Such cases are becoming more common. This year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Iranian lawyer Shireen Ebadi, has spent the past two decades in an uphill battle to reform Iran’s child-custody laws, which strongly favor men in divorce cases.

That’s been no comfort to the girls’ mother.

“I’ve been crying and crying for three months,” said Dr. Pourhashemi, who is Iranian-born and Western-educated, during a series of telephone interviews from her home in Liege, Belgium.

“I’m happy that they’re somewhere safe. But I still worry because the father is capable of doing anything.”

Under current Iranian statutes — based on Islamic law and tried in courtrooms overseen by clerics — the father gets custody of children 7 or older, which gives him control of the older Yasmine now and the younger Sara in several months.

However, under Belgian law, the father signed away custody under the terms of the Belgian divorce and is an international fugitive with an arrest warrant sworn out in his name.

The girls’ father, found at the modest south Tehran home of his mother, refused to speak with reporters Thursday evening.

His relatives said that Mr. Salaami’s father died a month ago and that the family was in mourning.

Although Dr. Pourhashemi and her husband, who each holds both an Iranian and Belgian passport, were divorced under Belgian law, they remain married under Iranian law.

As long as the girls are in the Belgian Embassy, they remain under Belgian law and diplomatic protection.

But Mr. Salaami could prevent them from leaving the country, said Mohamad Seifzadeh, a member of the Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit association of lawyers.

“They’ll have to leave the country at some point,” he said. “They could always be stopped at the airport.”

The international family drama is reminiscent of Sally Field’s 1991 movie “Not Without My Daughter,” which recounted the true story of Betty Mahmoudy, an American woman who smuggled her daughter out of post-revolutionary Iran after the child was taken abroad by her Iranian father.

Dr. Pourhashemi, 36, and Mr. Salaami met and married in medical school in Belgium. He was seven years older. But she went on to become a busy general practitioner in Belgium, while he failed to establish a successful practice, she said.

She said he became abusive, and the couple began divorce procedures two years ago.

In August, Mr. Salaami told his ex-wife he wanted to take the girls on a trip to Greece. Dr. Pourhashemi said she was stunned and slightly suspicious. “He had never taken us on a holiday anywhere,” she said.

Indeed, after just two days in Greece, the father suddenly told his daughters they had to go back to Belgium. But, instead, they got on a plane heading for Tehran.

Once in Iran, Dr. Pourhashemi says, the girls were forbidden Internet access and were able to speak to her only during a few brief phone conversations. She says she wept as her daughters complained that they were poorly fed and physically abused.

The mother says the daughters were put in a strict school, where supervisors and teachers were told never to allow the daughters to answer phone calls.

Now at the Belgium Embassy, they’ve been given three rooms. Yasmine has been chatting with Belgian friends on the Internet and Sara has been drawing pictures. The embassy is considering hiring a tutor for the girls.

“The embassy is prepared to host them as long as necessary,” Mr. Vermeulen told Le Soir.

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