Ex-Facebook tech guru reveals Tehran’s attempts to force him to spy

LONDON: A former Facebook software engineer has spoken out about his torture at the hands of Iran’s secret service, exposed its attempts to have him spy on his own friends, and spoken of the seismic impact the experience has had on his life.

Canadian-Iranian Behdad Esfahbod was a high-flying software engineer at Facebook. An icon in Iran’s tech community, he was loved by young Iranians who regularly packed lecture halls to hear him speak.

But, he revealed in a tell-all post on his personal blog, his superstar status among Iran’s young tech enthusiasts could not save him when the secret service kidnapped him off the streets of Tehran and tried to blackmail him into spying on his friends.

By going public with his story, Esfahbod said he aimed to take some power back from the regime and expose it for what it is.

Tehran and its agents, he added, are “professional abusers,” and “like every abuser, their biggest fear is that I expose them. So that’s what I’m doing.”

Kidnapped from the streets of Tehran while visiting the country to see his family, Esfahbod said he was taken to the notorious Evin prison, his phone was raided, and he was then subjected to seven days of psychological torture and interrogation. “I was held in solitary confinement for seven days and questioned daily for six-plus hours,” he added.

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) secret service agents threatened him with 10 years behind bars on spurious grounds.

His only way out, he said, was to agree to spy on his friends, Iranian activists and anyone working to circumvent the veil of censorship that cuts off Iran’s internet from the world.

“I agreed to that deal under coercion,” he added, so he could leave the country alive and have a chance to tell his story.

But after escaping Iran, Esfahbod’s ordeal was far from over. IRGC intelligence agents hounded him through Instagram to begin spying, and when he ignored their messages, he was inundated with messages across every social media account he owned.

Now he has made it clear that he will not spy for Tehran, Esfahbod is terrified for his family still in the country.

“They told me, ‘you have a brother in America, you have a sister here. Remember the airplane we shot down? Remember we said it was human error? Same thing could happen to you and your family’,” he said.

“What’s their next move (going to) be … Will they pressure, detain (and) torture my family? What inhumane thing they’ll do to my friends (and) family I don’t know.”

But while Esfahbod waited for Tehran’s next move, the foundations of his own life gave way beneath him.

The trauma of the ordeal meant he could no longer work his $1.5-million-per-year job at Facebook, his relationship with his partner broke down and, isolated and paranoid, his mental health declined so rapidly that he says it descended into “full-blown mania.”

Dismayed at their government, his story has struck a chord among young Iranians. “I am exploding with anger after hearing what they have done to Behdad Esfahbod,” read a Twitter post by an Iranian identified as Mohamad Hossein Hajivandi. 

Twitter user Ali Rastegar wrote: “Why is there no limit to your crimes and crap? Isn’t anyone allowed to be successful in another country and not spy for you?” 

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