Researchers reflect on World AIDS Day

Two Iranian doctors who drew international attention from human rights groups when they were jailed

Two Iranian doctors who drew international attention from human rights groups when they were jailed for trying to combat HIV/AIDS in their country were keynote speakers Thursday at a World AIDS Day commemoration sponsored by Centro Civico.

Drs. Arash and Kamiar Alaei, who are brothers, used the forum at the Perthshire to announce plans to establish an international organization called the Center for Health and Human Rights. The center will focus on different aspects of health, such as education, advocacy and research, as a basic human right in Latin American countries and countries with Muslim populations.

Dr. Arash Alaei, 37, who speaks Spanish, is an infectious disease specialist. He is on staff at the University at Albany, where he is working on research and his second doctorate in health policy. Dr. Kamiar Alaei, 42, is a volunteer at UAlbany. He received a master’s degree in population and international health from the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston in 1997.

“We want to continue to be the voice of voices and the face of faces,” said Arash Alaei.

Centro Civico, based in Amsterdam, will become a member of the center’s advisory group and will be involved in field work, the brothers said.

The Alaeis were jailed in 2008 by the Iranian government, accused of communicating with a foreign government and plotting to overthrow the government. They were tried in secret and sentenced to several years in prison. Following public outcry — led in part by Centro Civico Director Ladan Alomar, who was the first person to call for their release — the Iranian government released the younger brother in 2010 and the older brother in October.

The relationship between the Alaeis and Alomar goes back to 2003, when the brothers visited the Latino not-for-profit community outreach center. The Alaeis were guests of the state Department of Health at the time, studying ways to develop and deliver HIV/AIDS education and prevention programs to disenfranchised populations through a Ford Foundation grant.

Centro Civico has worked to combat HIV/AIDS in Fulton and Montgomery counties for some 20 years, Alomar said. The Centro Civico program uses a comprehensive approach, involving education, support and prevention, to help people with HIV/AIDS and their families, Arash Alaei said.

The Alaei brothers called Centro Civico’s HIV/AIDS program unique. “It is a model program, especially when you want to work with other Latin countries,” Arash Alaei said. “It has been here for 20 years and has had an impact despite limited resources.”

Alomar said the brothers “came here because they were doing similar work to what we were doing. They were serving a disenfranchised population.”

Alomar said the Iranian government targeted the brothers because they brought attention to a forbidden side of life in the hardline Islamic country, that of drug abuse and sexual behavior outside of marriage. Iran has a large population of people who use intravenous drugs, a conduit for the virus that causes AIDS. In 2007, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was famously quoted as saying in a speech at a top U.S. university that there were no gays in Iran.

The brothers said they were arrested for “thoughts.”

Said Arash Alaei: “HIV is not just a disease. There is a huge stigma attached to it. There is a huge ignorance among officials about HIV. They are told not to talk about it.”

In 1999, the Alaeis started a program to integrate education, care and prevention of HIV/AIDS, sexually-transmitted infections and drug-related harm reduction into Iran’s national care system. They started their program in a storage room and had one or two patients at first. Within six months, the program was seeing 60 patients per day, and within five years it was international.

At first, the Iranian government tolerated the program, but that attitude changed when a new regime came in and the brothers received a $60 million grant from the Global Fund. The brothers started collaborating with schools in America, bringing students to Iran to work on different aspects of health. When the students graduated, the hope was they would return to their countries and share their knowledge.

The Alaei brothers said the Iranian government charged the exchange program would brainwash doctors, who would in turn influence their patients. The patients would then develop anti-government feelings and seek to overthrow the fundamentalist government.

Categories: Schenectady County

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