Exclusive: Mysterious Attack on Iranian Dissident in California Has Friends, Family Blaming Iran
A police report claims the dissident’s son is behind the violent assault, though this report is contradicted by visual evidence.
A police report accusing a recent law school graduate of assaulting his father, who is a critic of the Iranian regime, is being disputed by friends and relatives of the family, some of whom insist Iran is behind the attack. The police report also contradicts visual evidence seen by the Sun.
What is hardly in dispute is that an Azeri-language broadcaster, Ahmad Obali, was badly beaten up at Santa Clara, California, on Saturday and was subsequently hospitalized. Persons close to the senior Mr. Obali were initially convinced the assault had to do with his advocacy on behalf of Iran’s Azeri minority and his widely heard broadcasts against the Islamic Republic’s regime.
Police investigators contend otherwise: Rather than politically motivated, the case could have been rooted in a dispute inside the family. A press release issued by the San Jose police department’s office of chief of police claims that “the victim identified his son as the suspect who had assaulted him on the prior night.”
The press release goes on to assert that police detectives and patrol officers “obtained an arrest warrant for the suspect, Deniz Obali.” The cops then “located the suspect at his residence in Campbell, and took him into custody without incident. The suspect was booked at Santa Clara County Main Jail for attempted murder.”
While the police report has taken aback some family allies who initially assumed the case was politically motivated and are now hesitant, others say that the son seems like an unlikely suspect. “The condition of Deniz, the son of the southern national activist Ahmad Obali, is worse” than his father’s, the chairman of the British Azerbaijanis Society, Farida Panahova, said, according to a report on the website of the Obali-founded Gunaz TV.
A photograph seen by the Sun indeed shows the father, Ahmad Obali, in a hospital bed, attached to a breathing device and other instruments. His face is bruised, his eyes closed, and he appears to be in pain. A separate photo shows the son, Deniz, shirtless in bed at the same hospital with his eyes closed. He seems to be even more bruised, and in worse shape than his father.
The photographer asked that the photos, taken shortly after the assault occurred, not be published for security reasons. The Sun was able to determine that the men shown in the pictures are the elder and younger Messrs. Obali.
Friends of the family described Ahmed Obali as a slightly built, gentle father who is deeply devoted to his family. The idea that the bruises were incurred in a struggle between father and son seemed far-fetched to them.
“Ahmad Obali, a southern national activist, and his son Deniz were brutally beaten in the United States. The incident happened 1 day after Ahmad Obali’s return from Azerbaijan,” a statement published by Gunaz TV said the day after the assault.
After undergoing surgery, Mr. Obali and his son are in stable condition, and their lives are no longer at risk, the head of Gunaz TV in Baku and a family member of the two victims, Araz Obali, said in a statement. Yet, Mr. Obali still has difficulty breathing without a respiratory device. Police security outside and inside the hospital has also been strengthened, Araz Obali said.
Gunaz television, which Mr. Obali founded, promotes human and ethnic rights and gives voice to Azeri Iranian separatists. Gunaz reaches millions of people in Iran and the diaspora. Mr. Obali has been targeted by the Iranian regime since 2004, the year he launched the news channel, according to numerous friends.
“We all feel the Iranian government must have tracked him down,” a long-time friend of Mr. Obali, Shapoor Ansari, who has been close to him since the launch of his television station, tells the Sun. “He was always careful because he is a target.” The assault, he added, seemed premeditated, as if someone went to California, knew the hotel at which he was staying, and attacked him. “A very professional job,” Mr. Shapoor adds.
Mr. Obali’s channel broadcasts primarily to Azeris, Iran’s largest ethnic minority group. Broadcasting mostly in the Azeri language, Gunaz TV gives a platform to other minority groups in the country as well, including Arabs and Balochs. The Islamic Republic has long treated these groups harshly, as some seek greater autonomy in the mostly Persian country.
Mr. Obali traveled to California this weekend for the graduation of his son, who had just completed his law degree at the University of Santa Clara School of Law.
“Ahmad Obali, a courageous and kind man, fighting for his life in a hospital in California after he and his son, who is in even a worse shape, were attacked by thugs working, presumably, for the Iranian regime,” an American analyst of international politics of the Middle East, Michael Duran, said.
Iran’s majority ethnic group, Persians, constitute 61 percent of the population, according to the World Population Review. Some of the minority groups include Azeris, who are 16 percent of the population, Kurds, 10 percent, and Arabs, 2 percent.
During the 2022 protests that were triggered by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, a woman who was arrested for allegedly wearing the hijab incorrectly, security forces have targeted minority protesters in the provinces of Balochistan, Kurdistan, and Kermanshah, according to the BBC.
The Islamic Republic is the leader globally in the use of the death penalty. About 10 people are executed each week, a report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting project says. The Iranian government primarily targets minorities, it adds.
The Iranian government is also notorious for pursuing Iranians whom it dislikes who live outside its borders, even Iranians in America, which is usually off limits for states such as Russia who assassinate their citizens abroad. In January of this year, the American Department of Justice charged three men in a murder-for-hire plot against an Iranian journalist at Brooklyn. That was six months after a man with an AK-47 was arrested outside her home.
Mr. Obali was born in Iran into the Azeri minority, but left Iran after the 1979 Khomeini revolution. “As soon as the new regime set itself up and started oppressing people, then I realized this is not what we wanted,” Mr. Obali told Chicago Magazine during an interview in 2016.
He landed in San Diego in 1985 and later moved to Chicago, where he earned a bachelor degree from the University of Illinois, where he founded his television channel.