TOPICS > Health

Imprisoned Iranian Doctors Honored for HIV Work

BY Talea Miller  June 17, 2011 at 11:30 AM EST

Kamiar Alaei at the International Conference on Global Health. Photo by Global Health Council

Kamiar and Arash Alaei, brothers bound by their dedication as doctors, made it their mission to educate Iranians about HIV and provide treatment for patients shunned by society.

They pushed for a nation-wide needle exchange program, reached out to the most marginalized, vulnerable communities, and traveled abroad to study and share their work at international health conferences. That all came to an abrupt end when in June of 2008 the brothers were arrested, and eventually convicted of “communicating with an enemy government” and “seeking to overthrow the Iranian government.”

The Alaeis were apparently targeted because of their travels abroad and speaking about their HIV work in Iran, according to Physicians for Human Rights.

Kamiar was sentenced to three years in prison, Arash to six years. Speaking for the first time publicly since his release in October of 2010, Kamiar paid tribute to his still-imprisoned brother as he accepted the 2011 Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights Thursday night in a ceremony hosted by NewsHour senior correspondent Ray Suarez.

“No prison walls can break the spirit of a human being with a cause,’’ Kamiar said with tears in his eyes.”My brother and I are the evidence of that spirit. I believe our strength comes from each other.”

He described the brothers’ close bond and his profound loneliness in being away from Arash.

They were united by the drive to be “the voice of the voiceless, and the face of the faceless,” he said, and found ways to spread their message while in prison. They educated prisoners on HIV, and tried to improve general health by helping inmates quite smoking and teaching them how to avoid tuberculosis and other preventable diseases.

Speaking with the NewsHour Friday, Kamiar said he feels it is the right time to speak because the full time frame of his sentence has expired, and he wanted to thank the many international organizations that lobbied for their release.

In the early days of the Alaeis’ sentence, the two were unaware that Physicians for Human Rights, and professors at Harvard’s School of Public Health, among others, had begun a campaign on their behalf.

During a short visit from their mother several months later, she hugged them and whispered in their ears, “The world supports you.”

“We were crying and very emotional,” Kamiar said. “We thought we were forgotten.”

Arash, who is half way through his prison sentence, was informed of the award through family, Kamiar said, and relayed that he was honored by the recognition.

The family is hopeful that Arash may be released early. Kamiar is currently working on his second doctorate in health policy at the State University of New York, but said it has been a struggle to remain focused with his brother’s future still uncertain.

“It’s difficult for me because the majority of the time I am just thinking about him, what is he doing now, is he sleeping,” Kamiar said. “But I know if I was in prison and he was out, I’d want him to continue our work.”