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UPDATED: Slovak held by Iran over spying claims (video included)

“MY NAME is Matej Valuch and I am from the Slovak Republic.” This is how a 26-year-old Slovak national, who has been detained in Iran over what Iranian officials allege is a case of espionage, introduces himself in a video recording called ‘Hunter in Trap [sic]’, shot by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence. In the video, posted on YouTube, Valuch speaks in English, dubbed into Persian, and appears to confess to working clandestinely for the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

“MY NAME is Matej Valuch and I am from the Slovak Republic.” This is how a 26-year-old Slovak national, who has been detained in Iran over what Iranian officials allege is a case of espionage, introduces himself in a video recording called ‘Hunter in Trap [sic]’, shot by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence. In the video, posted on YouTube, Valuch speaks in English, dubbed into Persian, and appears to confess to working clandestinely for the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Slovak diplomats have not yet succeeded in contacting Valuch, who last spoke to his mother on December 10, 2012, when he told her that he would not be coming home for Christmas, the Sme daily reported on January 22.

“We do all we can in line with the internationally valid agreements and commitments to gain access [to Valuch] but the Iranian party has not yet responded,” Slovak Foreign Affairs Minister Miroslav Lajčák said after a cabinet meeting on January 23, adding that he and his diplomatic colleagues were “pushing all the available buttons”, both national and international.

People close to Valuch in Slovakia, including his family and his former university, have expressed doubts about him being involved in espionage.

International relations expert Jaroslav Bureš suggested that Valuch may have become caught up in Iranian propaganda ahead of the country’s presidential elections, scheduled for later this year.

“The case of Valuch fits into the pre-election scenario,” said Bureš, a Middle East expert and research associate with the Institute for International Relations in Prague, in an interview with Sme. “The regime fears that a revolutionary wave [like that seen after manipulation of the results of the last Iranian presidential election, in 2009] might be repeated. It needs to prove that the nation is under threat, that foreign spy services are operating there, and that they want to repeat the unrest.”

The United States Embassy in Bratislava told The Slovak Spectator that “it is Department of State policy to not comment on any intelligence matters”.

Efforts to help Valuch


While assuring the public that the ministry is taking action, Lajčák also said he could not specify exactly what it was doing due to the serious nature of the case, and in order to protect Valuch.

“We are striving to help our citizen,” Lajčák said, as quoted by the SITA newswire. “We will help him by taking action and not talking about it.”

Meanwhile, Justice Minister Tomáš Borec called Valuch’s possible extradition a laborious process suggesting that “it is a complicated issue and we will be happy if it works out”, the TASR newswire reported.

According to Borec, the process is made more complicated by the fact that Iran’s actions in this sphere are governed by a completely different legal framework from that of Slovakia or the European Union.

“We have a completely different contract framework with European countries or countries of the Western world,” said Borec, as quoted by TASR. “As far as the Middle East is concerned, there’s substantially less common ground in terms of law, and as a result there are fewer options.”


Doubts about the confession


Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák expressed doubts about the information posted about Valuch on the internet.

“From what I know about how security and intelligence units work, there are several things which do not seem correct, given how the whole thing is constructed,” said Kaliňák, as quoted by SITA, adding that one should also consider Valuch’s age.

Kaliňák said he could hardly imagine that an intelligence agency would entrust confidential information to a foreigner whom they barely know. The minister said he instead leaned towards the view that those who recorded the video may have put pressure on Valuch, SITA wrote.

Former foreign affairs minister Eduard Kukan also expressed the opinion that Valuch had made his videotaped confession under duress.

“I assume that the accusations against our citizen are constructed, and that he made up the confession under pressure,” Kukan told Sme, adding he thought the affair was intended to create the impression among Iranians that the Americans were using the citizens of other countries against them.

Kukan suggested that Lajčák should involve the EU’s chief diplomat, Catherine Ashton, in the case in order to put more pressure on Iran.

Matej Valuch last visited his home in Dubnica nad Váhom, Trenčín Region, in August last year, after which he left without saying where he was going. His family has been in contact with the Slovak Foreign Affairs Ministry since January 21. His mother, Ľubica Valuchová, resolutely rejected claims that her son is a CIA agent, SITA reported.

Valuch’s alma mater, Matej Bel University in Banská Bystrica, where he studied business to bachelor level, described him as an ambitious student who had once interrupted his studies to make a trip to Iran, acoording to Sme.

Valuch specialised in banking, financing and investment, according to Sme. Hussam Musa, the deputy dean for studies at Matej Bel, who comes from Jordan, also doubted that Valuch would have been involved in espionage.

“Time will show that it will probably be some political game,” Musa said, as quoted by Sme.


Uncertain outcome


Drewery Dyke, a researcher with human rights organisation Amnesty International, said in an interview with Sme that arrests on grounds of state security are common in Iran, adding that the problem is that the country has no definition of what constitutes a violation of security.

“Getting him out of there will be an extraordinary challenge,” said Dyke, who said Iran was violating the Geneva and Vienna conventions by not allowing Slovak diplomats to visit Valuch.

“Unfortunately it is regular practice,” said Dyke. “Until [he is] charged officially he might not have access to lawyers. They will claim that they are investigating him, which might take months.”

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