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5 min

Iranian queer group getting back on track

Lawyer says former ED tried to overthrow board

STARTING FRESH. Niaz Salimi and Saghi Ghahraman say the Iranian Queer Organization is trying to get back up and running. Credit: Jenna Wakani

Douglas Elliott, the lawyer for the board of the Toronto-based Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO), says former executive director Arsham Parsi tried to illegally take control of IRQO and has ignored requests to help account for donations the organization received prior to July of this year.

“It’s very sad what has happened here,” says Elliott. “Refugees from Iran are among the most vulnerable in the world. My biggest fear is that people in the community will hesitate to support the cause of Iranian refugees.”

Elliott says Parsi was removed as executive director of IRQO in April, but remained on the board of directors. According to Niaz Salimi and Saghi Ghahraman, the current directors of IRQO,  the board asked Parsi in July to help find answers to some questions about the organization’s finances.

Parsi then sent out press releases announcing that IRQO’s board of directors had resigned, and that he was the only original member left. He also announced the appointment of new board members. Xtra received one of the releases, as did Elliott.

“He had purported to fire the two other board members and replace them,” says Elliott. “This was not done in a legal way.”

Elliott says Parsi also attempted to take control of IRQO’s bank account by telling the bank that the other two directors with signing authority had been removed.

“After he notified people on the mailing list that he had changed the board, he told the bank the same thing,” says Elliott. “Someone at the bank who didn’t understand proper legal procedure took his word for it and removed their signing authority.

“From the documents I’ve seen, and based on IRQO’s incorporating documents, it’s not legal for him to do that,” says Elliott.

After the other board members found out about the signing change Elliott says they confronted the bank, which admitted its mistake and reversed the changes.

Elliott says Parsi also took control of the IRQO website and locked out other board members.

Elliott says the other members tried to remove Parsi from the board after that, but didn’t realize they had to hold a members’ meeting to officially vote him off. That meeting was held recently.

“A members’ meeting was held in November,” says Elliott. “He did not attend or communicate with the board of directors.”

Elliott says Parsi retained control of the IRQO website until recently, even after Parsi started a new group, the Iranian Queer Railroad (IQRR) in October.

“He, or someone acting at his behest, arranged for people going to IRQO’s website to be directed to IQRR,” says Elliott.

Elliott says questions remain about what happened to some of the donations IRQO received while Parsi was running the organization.

“There were repeated appeals for donations and money was [donated],” says Elliott. “It may have been spent on legitimate uses, but it’s not accounted for. He was sent a request to account for the organization’s finances when he was in control, which he did not respond to.”

Elliott says there are specific questions about what happened to a $5,000 cheque given to IRQO as an award by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). The cheque was presented to Parsi at a ceremony in New York on Apr 28.

“At this time my client doesn’t know what became of that money,” Elliott says. “It may have been deposited in IRQO’s account and it may have been spent on legitimate causes. We don’t know because Arsham won’t say.”

Elliott writes in an email that the current board of IRQO cannot access bank records.

“Mr Parsi was always running the account and the finances of the organization,” Elliott writes. “In theory the other directors had access to the account before he attempted to remove them in July, but they did not look into this until after Mr Parsi excluded them from any control of the account in July. I do not know if the bank will give them access to the information about the old account for any period at this point.

“The bank resolved the problem by opening a new account for IRQO for the majority of the board of directors and transferring the remaining balance from the old account controlled by Mr Parsi,” Elliott writes. “I do not know what became of the old account, but I am inferring that it was closed by the bank.”

Elliott says he has asked IGLHRC to provide information on where the cheque was deposited. IGLHRC has not responded to requests from Xtra for the same information.

Salimi and Ghahraman say their only concern is getting IRQO up and running again.

Ghahraman says IRQO hired Elliott to investigate the events.

“We need to have the name of the organization cleared,” she says. “We need to have the trust of other organizations so they can support us. We are not looking at taking Arsham to court. It would be a long and expensive procedure.”

Salimi says they’re determined to get IRQO back in full operation.

“This is our organization,” she says. “We put our hearts, our blood into this.”

Elliott says he’s convinced IRQO is back on track.

“The board of directors running the organization now is very determined to do it in a legal fashion, very responsibly, in a transparent manner,” he says.

Parsi has been in Turkey, where he says he is working on getting IQRR started. Queer Iranian refugees often escape to Turkey before seeking refugee status in other countries such as Canada.

In an email to Xtra he writes that he had troubles with IRQO.

“It is true there has been a difficult split between myself and IRQO board members and we could no longer work together,” he writes. “I made some mistakes when I left the board, and I made a statement too quickly.”

Parsi would not respond to other questions.

“If they say to you I have done illegal things, friends advise that I not comment in more detail until I return and can consult a lawyer,” he writes. “It is very hard to manage this at a distance. I could say more at a later time.”

In the email Parsi writes that IQRR —  which is not affiliated with the Rainbow Railroad —  will focus on the journey of refugees from Iran to safer countries.

“We are working to create a simple structure and focus upon supporting Iranian queers to be safe on their journey and to arrive in a new country to live and be free,” he writes. “I concluded that a new organization dedicated exclusively to helping sexual dissidents flee persecution in Iran was needed.

“Our goals will be helping refugees who had to escape Iran because of their sexual orientation. Seeking asylum is not an easy issue and because I used to be a refugee based on my sexual orientation I know the conditions they live in and I want to help my fellow Iranian queers.”

Ghahraman says the two groups are not rivals, that IRQO will continue to provide support for refugees when they arrive in Canada.

“This organization that Arsham is starting is concerned only with refugees from Iran to a transit country to a safe country,” she says. “IRQO has projects to help refugees when they are here with the Iranian community and the larger community.”