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'Swedes of the Year' stood up to criminal gangs

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15:45 CET+01:00
The owners of a Gothenburg restaurant who stood up to gangs that tried to extort protection money have been named Swedes of the year.

Masoud and Shahnaz Garakoei were awarded the honour by Fokus magazine at a ceremony in Stockholm on Thursday. The jury of journalists, business people and figures from the voluntary sector said that the couple had "acted with exceptional courage in a life-threatening situation."

"They have risked their own security and defended the value of democratic rights, laws and justice. Their acts are characterized by great courage and high integrity and are an inspiring role model for others.”

The couple's ordeal started in 2003 when two men walked in their Persian restaurant in Gothenburg and asked to speak to Mr Garakoei.

“We are Bandidos. We own Hisinge and we are here to protect you from the Russian mob. Pay us and don't tell this to anyone,” one of the men said.

Two days later, Mr. Garakoei handed over a bag with 120,000 kronor to them. His wife had wanted to go to the police, but he was afraid of what the gang might do to their children.

He later came to regret having given Bandidos the money. He started suffering from depression, and considered both divorce and suicide. Mrs Garakoei struggled to keep the restaurant up and running.

A year later, when Bandidos demanded a further 120,000 kronor, Mr. Garakoei refused. He walked over to Bandidos' headquarters, came face to face with the president and told him that he would not pay. He then ran home and called the police.

Two trials later, seven Bandidos members were convicted and many received long jail sentences for blackmail. The couple testified at the trials, despite receiving death threats.

But the threats and blackmail did not stop following the convictions. False rumors about the couple were spread in the neighborhood, their car's tyres were slashed eight times and parts of the restaurant were vandalized.

The couple's business also suffered – customers deserted the restaurant. The couple was ignored by the Iranian community in Gothenburg; many took the side of Iranian Mehdi Seyyed, the president of Bandidos. Even relatives stopped calling. The lives of their children were threatened and on December 26th 2005 their car was set on fire.

After this incident, a new police squad took over their case, installed cameras and an alarm system. They also made a short-lived attempt to join a witness protection programme, but soon grew tired of moving round hotel rooms and apartments rented by police.

Today the Garakoeis still live in fear of the criminal gangs. They say they would consider giving up the restaurant in exchange for peace but not without getting back what they invested.

“Why should we run away and hide? Why should we just give up everything and begin with two empty hands again? We hope a Jesus will come and save us from this restaurant,” said Shahnaz to magazine Fokus.

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