WASHINGTON/ISTANBUL - The sister of an Iranian student detained in Tehran last month on charges that he engaged in seditious activity says she and her family have received threatening messages since she criticized Iranian authorities' treatment of her brother.
In a Tuesday phone interview with VOA Persian from her home in Britain, Aida Younesi said Iranian government supporters in recent days have used Twitter to send her private messages and post public comments threatening to sexually assault her and kill members of her family.
Younesi said the threats came after she posted a May 5 video message on Twitter, rebutting apparent allegations against her 20-year-old brother Ali Younesi made by Iranian judiciary spokesperson Gholamhossein Esmaili earlier that day. Without referencing Ali Younesi by name, Esmaili told a news conference that authorities had arrested two university students for being in possession of "explosive devices" and having contact with "counterrevolutionary" groups such as the exiled People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran, also known as MEK.
Iranian authorities arrested Ali Younesi and Amir Hossein Moradi, both award-winning students at Tehran's Sharif University of Technology, on April 10 and have kept them in custody since. Younesi has won gold medals in Iran's National Astronomy Olympiad and the 2018 International Astronomy and Astrophysics Olympiad in China.
In her May 5 video, Aida Younesi dismissed Esmaili's allegations against her brother as "ridiculous" and accused authorities of inflicting a "disaster" on him.
Family members have said 12 plainclothes Iranian security agents seized Ali Younesi on April 10 as he traveled to school and returned him to their Tehran home later that day in handcuffs with his face bloodied and wounds on his body. They said the agents searched the home without producing a warrant and interrogated Ali Younesi's parents for several hours.
Speaking to VOA, Aida Younesi said some people anonymously have phoned her parents and demanded that they pressure her to delete her Twitter video.
"They are trying to charge Ali based on our parents' background," Aida Younesi said, referring to the Iranian judiciary. "After I said in my short video that this could not be a legitimate reason, they didn't answer me."
She also said her family last heard from her brother on a May 6 phone call in which Ali told them in a weak voice that he was OK.
Also Tuesday, London-based rights group Amnesty International appealed to its supporters to press Iran's judiciary to release Ali Younesi, calling him a "prisoner of conscience targeted solely for his family ties" and warning that he is "at risk of torture or other ill-treatment."
The France-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which is led by Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) and advocates the "overthrow" of "religious dictatorship" in Iran, responded to Esmaili's charge that the two detained students have MEK ties by calling it "trumped up".
"Terrified of (an) uprising, the religious fascism ruling Iran finds no other option other than resorting to intimidation, suppression, and stepping up repression," NCRI said in a May 5 statement.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus denounced the charges against Younesi and Moradi as "bogus" in a Sunday statement to the Washington Examiner.
"The Iranian regime is focused on harassing rather than empowering the most talented Iranians. We join the countless Iranians and others around the world in calling for their release," Ortagus said, referring to the two students.