Iranian asylum seeker Bahareh Zarebahari © Private

Philippines: Authorities must not deport Iranian asylum seeker trapped in Manila airport

A 31-year-old Iranian asylum seeker, Bahareh Zarebahari, may be at risk of being deported to Iran where she could face detention and torture, said Amnesty International today. A decision on her case is reported to be imminent. She is entering her fourth week in detention, trapped in the transit area of Manila’s main airport.

“Bahareh Zarebahari has been a vocal critic of the Iranian authorities and a public opponent of forced veiling. If the Philippines authorities send her to Iran she risks arrest, torture and other ill-treatment, and unfair trial and imprisonment,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East and Southeast Asia.

“The Philippines authorities have an obligation under international law to refrain from sending anyone to a country where they could be at risk of serious human rights violations.”

Bahareh Zarebahari has been a vocal critic of the Iranian authorities and a public opponent of forced veiling. If the Philippines authorities send her to Iran she risks arrest, torture and other ill-treatment, and unfair trial and imprisonment

Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International

Zarebahari, who has lived in the Philippines for the past five years and represented Iran at the 2018 Miss Intercontinental beauty pageant in Manila, was detained upon arrival in Manila from Dubai on 17 October 2019. Philippine authorities acted on an Interpol Red Notice placed on her by Iranian authorities. She has still not been told what charges she faces in Iran.

She has since been held in a room in Terminal 3 of Manila’s Ninoy Aquino international airport. According to reports, the Red Notice relates to an offence the Iranian authorities allege she committed in Iran in 2018 but Zarebahari says she has not travelled to Iran since 2014. In her social media posts on Facebook and Instagram, she has claimed that the Iranian authorities want to punish her for her opposition to the Islamic Republic.

A dentistry student in the Philippines, Zarebahari has been vocal about her support for Iran’s former crown prince, Reza Pahlavi. During the 2018 beauty contest in Manila, she waved a poster of Reza Pahlavi and draped herself in the former national flag of Iran, which bears the lion and sun emblem that has become associated with the deposed royal family.

In a media interview on 21 October, Zarehbahari said that her problems in the Philippines began after she participated in the beauty pageant. She said she began receiving threatening messages from an official in the Iranian embassy in the Philippines who told her she had to visit the embassy questioning.

“It’s appalling that she has been detained for so long in airport transit, in such dismal conditions,” said Nicholas Bequelin. “The Philippines authorities have a clear international legal obligation to keep her safe and not return her to Iran, where she could face human rights violations.”

In a series of messages on her social media accounts on Facebook and Instagram, Zarebahari says that airport authorities have detained her like a prisoner and denied her any visitors besides limited access to her Philippines lawyers. She has been shouted at while trying to sleep, is exposed to bright lights 24 hours a day, and has no access to hot water. She says her physical and mental health have deteriorated by her three-week detention. She has not been sleeping and suffers from constant headaches.

Zarebahari says that three weeks ago, security guards handcuffed her, pulled her by her hair, arms and legs and tried to force her on a plane to Iran. In recent days, despite her pending asylum case, airport authorities tried to coerce her to sign papers agreeing to her deportation to Iran. In recent Facebook posts, she says that she has no update from the Philippines authorities about her case, though, according to some reports, a decision on her case is imminent.

Previously, Markk Perete, Undersecretary at the Philippine Department of Justice, said that “the only reason she was held at the airport […] is only because of that Red Notice issued against her.”

On 6 November, Philippines Senator and Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience Leila de Lima raised concerns about Bahareh Zarebahari’s case and urged the Philippines government to consider her asylum application in compliance with international human rights law.

Under international law, all states are entitled to regulate access and residence of foreigners on their territory and return people who are irregularly present on their territory to their country of origin. However, like any other state, the Philippines is bound by the principle of non-refoulement, which is the cornerstone of refugee law, enshrined in customary international law. Under this principle, governments are prohibited from sending anyone to a country where they would be at risk of serious human rights violations.