Freed Scholar Recounts Ordeal

Haleh Esfandiari’s imprisonment in Iran stirred concerns among scholars, and her story shows a government deeply suspicious of academe.
September 15, 2009

WASHINGTON -- The incarceration of Haleh Esfandi, who was held for four months in a notorious prison in her native Iran, anguished a community of fellow scholars who saw her ordeal as an affront to both academic freedom and human rights. The story of Esfandiari’s ordeal, which she detailed before an audience of colleagues at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars here Monday, provides a window into the “twisted” mindset of Iranian intelligence officials who are convinced that academics are intent on toppling the regime, she said.

Esfandiari recounts her harrowing experience in a newly released book called My Prison, My Home: One Woman’s Story of Captivity in Iran (HarperCollins).The story began in Tehran when, while visiting her 93-year-old mother, Esfandiari was stopped by knife wielding intelligence officials who accused her of plotting to overthrow the government. This incident, which occurred December 30, 2006, led to four months of house arrest and intense interrogation, followed by another four months in Evin Prison. She was released in August 2007, following a robust diplomatic effort that involved her colleagues at the Wilson Center and members of the U.S. Congress.

During her talk Monday, some members of the hushed audience -- including the colleagues who spent months trying to secure her release -- appeared to fight back tears as Esfandiari recounted the details of her experience. Questioned for hours on end by interrogators, Esfandiari says she was never permitted to look at her accusers, and instead stared at a cement wall. Three months of her time was spent in solitary confinement, and she was repeatedly blindfolded as she was moved about the prison.

“Walking blindfolded is not only disorienting, it’s humiliating,” she said “You are dependent on others like a child.”

At the root of the questions posed by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence was a persistent theory that U.S.-based think tanks are part of a conspiracy to provoke a “velvet revolution” in the Islamic Republic. The Woodrow Wilson Center, where Esfandiari directs the Middle East Program, Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and Stanford University’s Hoover Institution are all objects of suspicion for the ministry, she said.

Interrogators questioned Esfandiari over and over again about the same details, probing for inconsistencies that might implicate her and the Wilson Center in a larger revolutionary plot, she said. The interrogators’ efforts were reminiscent of techniques employed by the Soviet Union’s KGB and Communist-era secret police in East Germany, Esfandiari said.

“Little did [the interrogators] know that I had read enough about East Germany to know what their tactics were,” she said.

Of all of the indignities Esfandiari recounted Monday, none seemed to trouble her as much as the memory of offering a videotaped statement that was later broadcast by intelligence officials.

While Esfandiari says she did not make false statements to appease her interrogators, she worried the footage could be spliced and manipulated. After the interview, Esfandiari says she spent a long time showering, hoping to “wash out the taint” from what had occurred.

“Afterwards, I felt soiled, somehow dirtied by the experience,” she said.

Shortly before she was released, Esfandiari, then 67, considered going on a hunger strike.

“They will either let me die or let me go, I said to myself,” she said.

She was released before she ever employed that tactic, however.

Some scholars who followed Esfandiari’s story said they worried the incident might deter others from going to Iran to study the country. Esfandiari, who holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and Iran, said it “breaks my heart” to conceive of telling others to never visit her native land. On the other hand, she said the state of paranoia and unrest that permeates the intelligence apparatus argues for scholars to exercise caution.

“I would wait a little bit,” she said, “to see how things develop.”


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