Thursday, July 19, 2007



Yesterday marked 6 1/2 months since masked agents of Iran's Intelligence Ministry robbed my mother, Haleh Esfandiari, of her belongings and passports at knife-point. It had been more than 70 days since her incarceration in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison before I finally saw her this week -- not as a free woman, but in footage of a KGB-style television "confession" broadcast by Iran's state-run television.

The broadcast began with a lie. My mother was shown sitting on a sofa in what looked like the living room of a house or a pleasant office, a plant next to the couch, a bottle of water on the table in front of her. In reality my mother, head of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington and a 67-year-old grandmother of two, has spent the past 10 weeks in a cramped cell that past prisoners have said lacks a cot or even a mat. For being an American Iranian scholar, she has been forced to sleep on the floor. She has been subjected to hundreds of hours of harsh and intimidating interrogations, often while blindfolded, totally cut off from the outside world and without access to her family or lawyer, despite our repeated requests to see her.

It was obvious from the words she used that much of what my mother said was scripted. Some of the phrases that she and two other prisoners -- Tajbakhsh and a man arrested last year who has since been released -- are shown saying echo statements that Iran's Intelligence Ministry has issued to describe their cases.

When the television program ended, I felt contempt for my mother's jailers and interrogators. But I was filled with admiration for my mother. In hugely difficult circumstances, she preserved her dignity, held her head high and did not lie. She did not falsely implicate others. It is her jailers, I thought, who have to work in the dark, behind the closed doors of prison interrogation rooms. It is they who hide their faces, who try to manipulate public opinion by controlling the media, smearing reputations and dishonestly splicing film.

This sort of dishonest and clumsy propaganda is of course not really aimed at convincing anyone of Esfandiari's guilt. It's purpose is to intimidate other Iranians who would speak out against the regime's abuses, sow fear among them, discourage them from contacting anyone at home (let alone daring to visit) and demonstrating the strength of the Iranian rulers. If they were in their right mind they would release her immediately, but it will take considerable pressure on the part of our government and especially the governments of Europe (who have more leverage than we) to secure her freedom. You can help by sending a letter here.

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