British-Iranian charity worker Narges Kalbasi Ashtari has been barred from leaving India since 2014 amid a court battle over the death of a young boy. Her case has prompted concern for aid workers, as BBC Monitoring’s Nusha Soluch explains.
Media in Iran describe Ms Ashtari as a “benevolent lady” who has dedicated her life to underprivileged children. Several social media pages have been set up in her support in Iran, and an open letter to the foreign minister for her “freedom” has been signed by prominent actors, celebrities and lawyers.
Her supporters believe that she was simply working for poor children in India, and ended up becoming “a victim” of local politics.
But in Rayagada district in the eastern Indian state of Orissa, some know her as the foreign charity worker who may have caused the death of a child.
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Ms Ashtari, 28, was sentenced to a year in jail for causing the death of the boy by negligence during a picnic she had organised. She has appealed against the jail term and is currently out on bail. The next hearing is due to take place at the end of this month.
The aid worker denies causing the death, saying she has been caught up in tribal politics and corruption.
“I have gone through the most horrific forms of abuse by a group of people with immense power, influence and protection,” she wrote in her petition on change.org, which has been signed by hundreds of thousands of people.
The aid worker said working in India was her dream, but she never imagined that one day she would have to face a legal case in the country.
The case revolves around Asim Jilakara, a five-year-old boy – not a girl as some earlier media reports said – who went missing in 2014 during a riverside picnic Ms Ashtari had organised.
Asim belonged to a couple employed by her. He is said to have been swept away by the river’s strong current and his body was never recovered.
Ms Ashtari said the couple gave a statement about the death to the police on the day, but a month later, they filed a complaint against her, insisting that she had thrown the boy into the river.
“Narges intentionally killed my son. She instructed me to cook on that day. The cooking place was far from the river. She was drunk. She threw my son into the water She killed my son in front of me,” the boy’s mother, Anjana Jilakara, said.
Ms Ashtari rejected the allegations, saying the child was not part of her foundation and was not under her care.
She said she was implicated in the case after she refused to pay bribes to tribesmen and officials after the accident.
But a local court convicted her and ordered her to pay a fine of 300,000 rupees (about $4,590; 3,600).
The court said Ms Ashtari had organised the picnic in a “dangerous” place. But her friends said the case relied “too heavily” on the testimony of the parents.
Ms Ashtari also accused the police and local authorities of “openly supporting the tribal people”, insisting that they “are influencing and instigating attacks” on her.
But Rayagada’s Superintendent of Police, Siva Subramani, denied there was any corruption in his force. “There is sufficient evidence against her If police are corrupt, she should have mentioned it during the trial,” he said.
Life on the move
Born in Iran, Narges Kalbasi Ashtari moved to the UK when she was four years old. She lost her parents to terminal illnesses when she was a teenager, and subsequently moved to Canada with her two brothers to live with her aunt.
Her younger brother Amir describes her as a “nurturing figure” who was “loved” by the children she taught.
Her drive to “dedicate her life to children in need” brought her to South Asia. She began her volunteer work in Milandahoo Island in the Maldives, and then moved to Sri Lanka.
In 2011, she travelled to a village called Mukundapur in Orissa, one of India’s poorest states.
“I was always searching for a place where I felt like I could completely and utterly devote my life to orphan children,” she said.
In Orissa, she established the Prishan Foundation, named after an orphan she had worked with in Sri Lanka. She financed her NGO through regular fundraising and sporadic employment in Canada.
After completing the construction of a second home for orphaned children, Ms Ashtari said she started having troubles with a local NGO called Assist.
Assist accused her of misusing funds, and eventually took over her foundation.
“She was receiving money from abroad and spending it as per her wish. She did not maintain account records of donation and expenditure. There was no transparency in her work,” Tala Ramanjulu, Assist’s manager, said.
The aid worker rejects the claims, saying Assist also tried to influence the court case against her.
“The donations I get are 99% from friends and people that I know. I have never taken any donation for myself and these sponsors can vouch for that,” she said.
The issue of NGOs receiving funds from abroad has been a controversial matter in India. In April 2015, the government cancelled the registration of nearly 9,000 foreign-funded NGOs, saying that they didn’t comply with the country’s tax laws.
‘I want this to end’
Both the Iranian and British foreign ministries have been assisting in the case.
A spokesperson for the British foreign office told the BBC: “We have been providing consular assistance to Ms Ashtari since 2014, including contacting local authorities on her behalf. We are ready to provide further assistance if required.”
Ms Ashtari now lives in the Iranian consulate in the southern city of Hyderabad and teaches English to underprivileged children.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has said he is working with Indian officials “to immediately free her from all hardships and troubles”.
But Ms Ashtari has not been given permission to leave the country.
“I just want this all to end so I can get on with my life,” she wrote on her Telegram account.