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The Azer abduction story: a journalist's dilemma

By Claude Adams

Surrey, B.C.Is Saren Azer a criminal? Or a protective father with a just cause? Or is he an aggregate of both, a kind of benign kidnapper?

And until a judge or jury decide, should we even be telling his story?

In nearly five decades of working as a journalist, this is the most difficult story I’ve ever covered. I can’t answer the first three, and question four takes us to the dilemma at the heart of the news profession: Most of the time, on most stories, we are working in a grey zone, where the truth is as elusive as lightning.

Still, I believe it’s a story worth trying to tell.

Saren Azer, a Kurdish Canadian citizen, is an international fugitive. He’s wanted by the RCMP and Interpol for abducting his four children a year ago, and spiriting them to Iran where they now live. His ex-wife Alison Azer, distraught and angry, has criticized Prime Minister Trudeau for not doing enough to get the children back to Canada.

Saren Azer says he took the children away because they were being subjected to the “nightmare” of a rancorous three-year custody fight that was damaging them physically and psychologically.

A year has gone by, and he wants all the attention around the case to stop. In a telephone interview last week from Iran, Azer told me: “I heard from the RCMP that they have 40 more cases of quote unquote kidnapping. How many of those were made a day to day story in the media? How many have made it to Interpol? I am not missing, my children are not missing.”

He said the charges against him are “racially and ethnically motivated."

“I think if I was a white North American and I was to take my children to another country, Interpol would not bother to come after me. But being Muslim, Middle Eastern, yes I think that's the way.”

But there are other reasons why the Azer child abduction has become such a headline-grabbing story. First, it touches on Canada’s relations (or non-relations) with Iran. Simply put, Ottawa has no leverage with Tehran since the Harper government broke off diplomatic relations in 2012. Second, a new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, was drawn into a highly emotional social media campaign by Alison, who demanded that he “pick up the phone” and talk to Iranian president Rouhani. Trudeau never made the call.

And there’s the larger-than-life personalities of the two parents at the centre in this domestic drama: Alison, a media-savvy Courtenay, BC, woman who’s raised $140,000 and a whirlwind of media support in her campaign to bring the children back; and Saren, a prize-winning medical researcher and humanitarian doctor praised by people like Stephen Harper for his work with refugees in northern Iraq.

Finally, there’s the unanswered question of what accommodations Azer has made with the Iranian authorities in his new home—given that this is the country he had to flee more than two decades ago because of his pro-Kurdish activities. As David Pugliese of the Ottawa Citizen reported, Azer told Canadian authorities in 1994 that he faced execution in Iran, and that was the basis for his refugee application at the time.

According to Pugliese, “Azer told journalists he had a 10-centimetre scar on his stomach from the iron bar beatings he received in prison. He also claimed the Iranians tortured him with electric shocks and high-pressure water because he advocated Kurdish writings and poetry. . . . The next year, he was granted refugee status, based on his torture claims.”

And who has not read about the recent executions of Kurdish activists by the Iranian regime? Or the imprisonment of Homa Hoodfar, the 65-year-old Canadian-Iranian scholar accused of propaganda and undermining national security?  Is this really a desirable environment for raising children after they've experienced life in a liberal democracy?
Today, Azer won’t talk about what he calls “politics”. He insists that he and the children are perfectly safe in Iran. We’ve heard nothing from the four children, aged 4 to 12, but we’ve seen videos and photos of them playing happily, and celebrating birthdays in their school in northern Iran. Azer says they are assimilating well, learning to speak Kurdish and Farsi and making new friends. He says they are healthy, don’t miss their mother, and that they are happy to be away from the turmoil of the custody fight. (I’ve not been able to independently confirm any of these things.)

I became a small part of the story last year, just a few weeks after Azer abducted the children during a court-sanctioned holiday in Europe. I requested an interview with Alison, who was getting all the media attention, and she declined. So I contacted a Calgary woman who was close to Azer and the children—she’d been their unofficial “nanny”-- and I found Azer’s brother Kamal, also in Calgary.

When we met, their version of events leading up to Azer’s abduction of the children was radically different from the story that Alison was telling. They portrayed Saren and the children as victims in the narrative, and they gave me copies of selected legal, police and medical documents which they feel support their case.

They also gave me Azer’s cell phone number in Iran, and after looking into my professional background, told me I was the only reporter he would agree to talk to. 

For a reporter, this kind of exclusive access is a mixed blessing. You have an immediate advantage over other reporters working the story. But you also risk being seen as a gatekeeper, or even an apologist. How can you be sure you’re not being exploited? How can you fairly tell both sides of the story?

I soon discovered how this could become an issue. When I learned about Azer’s precise whereabouts in the Middle East, I again reached out to Alison’s media handler to share this fresh information, and to put some questions to her. In response, she contacted my employer at the time, and criticized my ethics as a journalist. She felt, wrongly, that I was using this information as leverage to secure an interview she didn’t want to do. In her eyes, I was clearly in the enemy camp because I was in communication with the Azers

And later, she tried to prevent me from using photos and videos of the children that I received from Azer--images that appeared in a Global National story I produced.

This was not enough to put me off the story. However,  I had to be careful. Normally, the identities of children in a domestic dispute are protected, but photos of the Azer children were all over Facebook and Twitter in the social media blitz organized by Alison. It was a narrative of four kids ruthlessly torn from their mother, and taken to a Middle East war zone by an impetuous and reckless father. Alison spoke darkly about her fears that the kids would be brought back in body bags, or recruited as suicide bombers.

Nonsense, said Azer. He told me the children were never in any danger during their exodus, and that the real “war zone” in their lives was Canada, where they’d been subjected to endless RCMP interviews, and examinations by psychologists and the ministry of family services. In Iran, he said, they were allowed to be children again. “Their world is the world of a child,” is how he puts it.

How true is this? Azer and the children did spend some time in the Qandil Mountains of Northern Iraq, a stronghold of the Kurdish PKK group whose villages were being targeted by Turkish bombers. So they were, in fact, in a real war zone.

And when I said I’d like to talk to the eldest child, 12-year-old Sharvahn, and ask how she felt about being separated from her mother and her life in Canada, Azer refused. He didn’t want her to be drawn into the social media frenzy at the time, he said. Instead, he invited me to come and visit him and the kids in Iran, to see for myself how they were adapting (an invitation, incidently, that he also extended to Alison.)

I can understand the instinct of a protective father. But once again, I was unable to satisfy myself on a key question:  Can a young child or adolescent really “switch off” on a mother that abruptly? Furthermore, who was I to ask a 12-year-old this loaded question, and evaluate her answer?

Lastly, there’s the matter of those documents I spoke about earlier, the police memos, and the medical findings and family ministry reports—incomplete scraps of confidential material about a broken relationship between a man and a woman, and the health issues of their children. How much of this can ethically be made public? Is this news, or an invasion of privacy?

With their actions and statements, Alison and Saren Azer  propelled this story into the news cycle.  For better or worse, they made a deeply private crisis a matter for public consumption. And journalists like me are asked, in a sense, to adjudicate—to tell a credible story that respects the limited facts we are given, and that is fair to both sides.

Both parents have their version of the truth, and I, the reporter, have an approximation. But it’s the children, silent now, who alone can tell us the truest story, and what it can teach us. And it will be years before we hear their story.

Kidnapping or Rescue? The story behind the Azer abduction

It's been a year since Saren Azer, a Kurdish-Canadian doctor, secretly put his four children on a plane to Northern Iraq, and became a fugitive in a case that electrified social media. He is being sought by the RCMP and Interpol on abduction charges. This is a backgrounder on a dosmetic relationship that went terribly wrong, and an update.

By Claude Adams

In Alison Azer's words, the romance began as a “mutual fascination with ‘the other’.” He, the ambitious and brilliant Kurdish-Canadian refugee with dreams of changing the world; she, the attractive Prairie writer with a troubled past, now “thirsty for a vision of the world to replace the consumerist metaphors of my youth.”

They met in 1996 in Edmonton, where Saren Azer was working on a PhD in medicine. Two years earlier, he had fled Iran where he’d been persecuted for his activism. Alison was with the Alberta Lung Association, and she organized a ceremony at which Saren was being awarded a prize for his pulmonary research. She was dazzled by his intensity of feeling.

“It sounds silly now, but I was swept off my feet,” she says. “He was charismatic. He had a presence.” She was drawn to his “swarthy good looks.”

"I felt that 'pow'--a big immediate attraction. . . I learned from him about how little I know about the world."

It was the perfect fit. “He sought political refuge and found it in Canada,” she wrote later, “I sought personal refuge and found it with him.” Alison fell in love. Saren Azer, she believed, would give meaning to her life. And she would be at his side as he worked toward his medical degree, and his later humanitarian work in the refugee camps of Iraqi Kurdistan.

According to Azer family members, Alison secretly converted to Islam, gave up alcohol, began wearing more modest clothing and they were married in the year 2000.

Together they formed an organization called the International Society for Peace and Human Rights. She supported Saren while he studied and over the years, they had four children, all with Kurdish names: Sharvahn, Rojevahn, Dersim, Meitan. (They are now aged 4 to 12.)

As a humanitarian, she told friends, he worked in the spirit of Norman Bethune and Albert Schweitzer.

But over time the relationship soured. Saren’s zeal for humanitarian work began to overshadow the marriage. He was on the road a lot, obsessed by the need to help his Kurdish compatriots overseas. Also, Alison says he would "go ballistic" when she came into contact with other men.

When he was home, he was strict with the children. Saren and Alison argued, for example, about the propriety of the bathing suits Sharvahn liked to wear. He didn’t want the two girls swimming with boys. She says he was developing a dual personality: one moment the Kurdish traditionalist male, the next, the "free-thinking, Western-thinking man."

Alison’s initial attraction to “the other” in Saren began to wane. In December, 2012, after a bitter argument, she left the family home in Comox, on Vancouver Island, and took the kids to a women’s shelter in Victoria. She told police that Saren had threatened to kill her, and the kids were no longer safe at home.

No criminal charges were ever laid, but the breakup led to a legal separation, a divorce and a bitter two-year custody battle involving the courts, family therapists, and the RCMP. Saren calls it a “campaign of terror and hatred” that was damaging the children. Both parties accused the other of physically abusing them: medical documents show that the children suffered from eating disorders, sleeplessness, bed-wetting and developmental issues. One of the girls was found to have “expressed some suicidal ideation.”
Saren won the legal right to spend time with the children, but Alison was deeply distrustful and suspicious of his intentions. He says she even had GPS tracking devices hidden in their suitcases when they went to visit their father.
“We were surrounded, we were encircled, we were brutalized,” Saren told me in a Skype interview on May 13. “For others it might have seemed like just another case in family court (but) what I saw my children go through was nothing less than a terror.”
“Over the past three years . . . all the struggles with the ministry (of child and family development), all the struggles with the RCMP, all the struggles that were happening in our lives, it shattered their mental, emotional, psychological and physical health . . . They were so young and so impacted by that process to the point that I didn’t recognize them anymore.”

Saren began making plans. He was a highly-regarded physician on Vancouver Island—with a six-figure income; his research into pulmonary disease was winning prizes; and his international humanitarian work had even drawn the attention of then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper. But, in his heart, Saren believed life in Canada was becoming untenable for him and the kids. He complained that the Canadian justice system was blind to their plight.

In August 2015, he made his move. During a holiday in Germany with the kids, Saren bought five one-way airline tickets to Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq. He promised the children a brand-new life, away from the trauma of the custody fight with their mother. The flight took the runaways into the war-torn Qandil Mountains, where Kurdish nationalists were being bombed by Turkish warplanes. It was a territory controlled by the nationalist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), effectively at war with Turkey.

A desperate mother went in pursuit. On the basis of information from police and sources in northern Iraq, and travelling with an Iraqi journalist, Alison tracked Saren and the kids down to a village in Iraqi Kurdistan. There, after negotiating her way through countless checkpoints, she received a frosty welcome from leaders of the PKK, a group considered by Canadian officials to be terrorists.

But the PKK elders denied that they were giving refuge to Azer and the children. They said there was nothing they could, or would do to help her in her quest. As they were leaving , Alison’s Iraqi guide was given a dark warning: Do not bring her back into PKK territory, if you know what’s good for you. He took it as a clear death threat.

Meanwhile, Saren Azer had contacted family members across the border in his native Iran, and someone from his family arrived by car to collect him and the four children. They were driven to the Iranian city of Mahabad, nestled in the mountains--the home of Saren’s mother, and other family members.

I was told they crossed the border openly, they were welcomed by Iranian authorities, and all five were eventually given documents affirming them as Iranian citizens. It seems that the issues which had prompted Saren’s flight from Iran more than 20 years earlier—his full-throated Kurdish nationalism—were forgiven. Within months, he found a teaching job in a university hospital.
Iranian civil law is highly patriarchal when it comes to child custody in divorce cases. In effect, the authorities believe he has broken no laws in seizing his children, as long as the mother is allowed to see them. Accordingly, Saren has invited Alison to visit the children whenever she likes. Meanwhile, the children have found what Saren calls their safe haven.

“Our daily life is filled with joy,” Saren told me in our Skype interview. “My children now are children. They sing, they dance, they laugh, they play. This is how a true childhood should look like, not in the waiting rooms of psychologists and counsellors. Not in the interview rooms of the RCMP.”

At school, they were learning the Kurdish language, along with Farsi and Arabic. There were also classes in English. There are videos of them at play, and taking part in traditional dances.

But to Alison, the picture Saren painted was all a sham. “What he’s doing,” she told an interviewer, “is the desperate attempts of a man who’s been on the run for nine months. He’s a wanted fugitive. He continues to cross borders illegally. And his actions speak to his desperation that he must be feeling knowing that authorities are circling in on him.”
She organized a social media campaign on Facebook and Twitter that vilified Saren and other family members, and she raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in a Canada-wide campaign to help her recover the children. In a 20-minute sit-down with Justin Trudeau, she demanded that the government put pressure on Iranian authorities to have Azer extradited, and the children returned. All it would take, she told Trudeau, was a forceful phone call to the Iranian president.

When nothing came of her efforts on Parliament Hill, she became the angry, desperate, hectoring mother, critical of the government’s inaction—its refusal to take matters to a higher diplomatic level. She also had strong words for the RCMP, who she believed weren’t doing enough to pursue their warrant for her husband’s arrest.

“I have had the unpleasant experience, the horrifying experience, of seeing this government from the inside,” Azer told The National Post. “I am furious.” She said officials were "asleep at the switch."

But most wounding of all was a claim by Saren that the children were content in their new life, that they had Iranian citizenship, and that they had no wish to communicate with Alison. Could they truly have become so alienated from their mother in a few short months?

“They’re children in captivity,” she says, somewhat defensively. “They need to be rescued, and they can’t rescue themselves. Canada needs to rescue the Azer children, my children.”

Saren sees it differently. “We are an ordinary family,” he told me. “Our important issues now are finding a car, looking after our cats, making our meals, cleaning our house. These are our issues, going to the parks, going to picnics, we couldn’t care less about that madness that goes on in Canada.”


Alison has told reporters that on June 12, Saren Azer was "arrested" in the province of West
Azerbaijan, but that charges of abduction against him were dropped because no one from
the Canadian government contacted Iranian officials.

That's not quite what happened, say sources close to Azer's family. In fact, two Iranian
officers in plain clothes arrived in a taxi at the university in the city of Urmia where Saren
was teaching.

They identified themselves as Interpol liaison officers, and asked Saren if he would appear
in court the next day. He was not arrested.

The next day, Azer appeared in court as instructed, and the appearance was very brief. In
response to a question from the judge, Azer said that his two boys were over the age of
three, and his two girls over the age of seven. With that, the judge said the children were
legally in the custody of their father, no crime under Iranian law had been committed, and
the case was dismissed. (The children were given Iranian birth certificates.)

Azer was told he was free to go.