Prison Time in Iran

By David Lepeska
The National's weekly Review magazine, Oct 2010

Most of us can’t imagine what it’s like to be Shane Bauer or Josh Fattal, the American hikers stuck for more than a year in Iran’s notorious Evin prison.

But for Roxana Saberi the experience is all too real. An Iranian- American journalist, she’d been living in Tehran six years when Iranian intelligence agents burst into her apartment on January 31, 2009.

They threw her into a car and, after hours of questioning, drove her to Evin and deposited her into a 7’ X 9’ cell with blankets for a bed and the screams of unseen prison-mates for company. During all-day interrogation sessions, her questioners pushed her to “cooperate,” or rather, admit she’d been working as a spy.

“They’re threatening you with the death penalty, life in prison, or finding and harming your family,” she said. “When you’re in that situation every threat is very real. They make you believe they have complete power of your life. Nobody knows where you are, and you know the history of Evin prison.”

She spent 100 days there, but during a recent interview at Doha’s Grand Hyatt hotel, looked none the worse for wear. Elegant and poised, the 33-year-old Saberi retains the ivory skin and mile-high cheekbones of a beauty queen (a former Miss North Dakota, she was among ten finalists in the 1998 Miss America pageant).

After earning two master’s degrees, including one from Cambridge, she moved to her father’s homeland in 2003. She’d carved out a good life in Tehran – freelancing for the BBC and National Public Radio, writing a book about modern Iran and dating a highly regarded Iranian Kurd filmmaker – before the trip to Evin. Her book about the experience, Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran, has received mostly positive notices since it was released in March.

Saberi’s Doha visit was organised by her alma mater, Northwestern University, to meet journalism students at NU-Qatar and deliver a lecture about human rights and Iran. On her first trip back to the region, she felt safe because she was “being looked after.” Sitting in the Hyatt's spacious atrium, she spoke openly and comfortably about her ordeal.

“I gave in pretty early,” Saberi admitted with a sheepish grin. After two days at Evin she confessed, falsely, to spying for the CIA. “I was so ashamed. I thought why couldn’t I at least put up more of a fight.”

Transferred to another cell, Saberi met Silva Harotonian, an Iranian-Armenian health worker who had refused to fold for her interrogators. Saberi became disgusted with herself and decided to speak the truth. “‘What kind of life do I want to live?’” she recalled asking herself at the time. “‘The life in which I know what I did is right.’”

She recanted her confession and later defied her bazju, or lead interrogator, but not before being allowed a phone call to her parents. She told her father she’d been detained for possessing alcohol, as directed by her keepers. Suspicious, he contacted the press, and within days Saberi became a minor international cause celebre: supportive stories appeared on the BBC, The New York Times and elsewhere; the president of the European Union requested proper treatment; the US State Department called for her release. Yet at the end of a classic Iranian “show trial,” she was convicted of espionage and sentenced to eight years in prison. It was just the push she needed.

Saberi, realising she would never get justice, found a new sense of purpose. She appealed her sentence and began a hunger strike. After nine days without meals, she stopped adding sugar to her water.

“Mentally everything’s a little shady and you can’t concentrate and you just wait for the days to pass by,” she said of her two weeks without food. On May 11 her sentence was suspended and she was released, frail and 15 pounds lighter. “What helped me was the feeling of defiance.”

That feeling motivates her work today, as a campaigner for human rights and media freedom. She’s confident the media coverage played a key role in her eventual release, just as international support led to the suspension, last month, of the stoning sentence for Iranian widow Sakineh Mohammadi.

“Even if the international outcry-- governments, organisations, also individuals – doesn’t always lead to the release of prisoners,” she said, “it does at least raise awareness about what is happening and empowers those people in prison and helps them tolerate the harsh conditions.”

Due to her severe treatment, Saberi understood the anger and frustration of the protesters that filled the streets of Tehran a month after her release, in the wake of the contested presidential election.

“I think that the people in power have lost a lot of legitimacy for much of the population,” she said. Because of Iran’s armies of informed, tech-savvy youth and the leadership’s internal bickering, Saberi sees change as “inevitable.” “I think the majority want a democratic government that respects human rights.”

Yet the regime is said to regularly deny those rights. Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of cases of sexual assault, beatings, torture and other forms of abuse in Iran’s prisons. Reporters without Borders recently expressed concern that Iranian prosecutors will request the death penalty for two leading Irani- an bloggers who have been in Evin prison for two years.

And then there’s Fattal and Bauer. The third American hiker, Sarah Shourd, was released from Evin last month after the sultan of Oman took care of her $500,000 bail. Shourd maintains she’s only “one-third free” because her fiancé and friend remain in Evin.

“She is in a very sensitive position because the Iranian authorities are paying attention to what she says,”
said Saberi, who directed the interested to visit www.freethehikers.org.

With the right kind of international support, Fattal and Bauer, like Saberi, might soon be able to appreciate the everyday freedoms most of us take for granted. “To make a phone call when I want,” said Saberi, thinking of things that feel new and precious to her post-Evin, “to eat when I want, to eat what I want, to put my head on a pillow, to turn off the lights at night, to write an email, to surf the internet, to read what I want, to go jogging in the streets, to talk about what happened to me and what’s happened to so many others.”

an edited version appeared in The National's Review, on Oct 1, 2010, www.thenational.ae

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