by Patricia Vásquez
Managing Editor, The WIP
A week ago, on August 15th, the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC, for which Dr. Haleh Esfandiari is the Director of The Middle East Program, was announcing the 100th day of imprisonment in the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran. Dr. Esfandiari, a distinguished and much beloved scholar there, had been held in solitary confinement since May 8th, ostensibly for trying to foment dissent and bring about a “velvet revolution” within the country, whose ultimate goal was to topple the Ahmadinejad government.
The outlook was grim. That day, Sharon McCarter, communications director of the Woodrow Wilson Center declared, “We are extremely dismayed about Haleh’s situation, and our concerns about her health and mental well-being have only increased as weeks of captivity have stretched into months. A renowned scholar and a tireless advocate for greater dialogue between Iran and the United States, Haleh has committed no crimes.”
Lee Hamilton, a former US congressman and President and Director of the Wilson Center, characterized Esfandiari this way: "Haleh is a scholar. The work she does at the Wilson Center is open, non-partisan, and includes a broad range of views. At the Wilson Center, we do not take positions on issues, but rather, we bring all sides of an issue together for dialogue."So it was a surprise when, on Tuesday morning, August 21, 2007, Mohammad Shadabi, an official at the Tehran prosecutor's office, announced to the press that Dr. Esfandiari “was released about 30 minutes ago after the bail of 3 billion rials (roughly $333, 000 USD) was posted." Shadabi said he did not know if Esfandiari would be allowed to leave the country.
Esfandiari's husband, Shaul Bakhash, a professor of history at George Mason University, spoke from the family’s home in Potomac, Maryland, just outside Washington, DC, about the events of early that morning in Tehran. He said Esfandiari's mother had gotten a call from an Iranian judiciary official, presumably Mohammad Shadabi, who informed her of the government’s decision to release her daughter. Fanny Esfandiari, 93 years old, then used the deed to her Tehran apartment to post the bail, said Dr. Bakhash.
"I feel extremely good. It has been a very anxious several months. Now we hope she will not only be released from prison but allowed to come back home," Bakhash said.
However, the Woodrow Wilson Center, which has worked tirelessly to gain Esfandiari’s freedom, says that when her cousin in Tehran had gone to the prison to pick her up at 5 p.m. local time (13:30 GMT), he was told that she still faced hours of paperwork before she would be permitted to go. No one knows what documents Esfandiari was made to sign to gain her release.
But eventually she did get out. She was met by Shirin Ebadi, her lawyer, an activist and a Nobel peace prize winner herself, who confirmed that Esfandiari's family had collected her and taken her to her mother's home.
"I'm happy that the judiciary and the Islamic revolutionary court finally accepted the law and released my client on bail," Ebadi said.
Lee Hamilton says he does not know precisely what might have prompted the release but he did mention that he received a written response from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in reply to a letter he sent the Ayatollah on Esfandiari's behalf. "I appealed to him on the basis of his religious views," Hamilton says. Hamilton has also met and talked with Iran's envoy at the United Nations.
There has been a long and active campaign to secure Esfandiari’s release, including a candlelight vigil at the United Nations Plaza; an on-line petition signed by over 7,500 people under the auspices of the organization, “Free Haleh;” a petition to the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, from all 16 of the US women senators; the Nobel Women’s Initiative called on the Iranian government “to adhere to its own high principles of justice and fairness”, and literally hundreds and hundreds of protests internationally.
Hamilton summarized the Center’s reaction to Dr. Esfandiari’s release:
“We rejoice at the news of Haleh’s release. This has been a long and trying ordeal for her and for her family. Her physical and mental well-being is now the urgent priority. We want to see her well, we want her to be permitted to return to the United States, and we want to see her reunited with her family.
“Haleh has lost close to seven months of her life. She was subjected to untold hours of interrogation and an isolation that we cannot imagine. She was denied time with her husband, her daughter, her son-in-law, her two granddaughters, and literally hundreds of other family members, friends, and colleagues who care deeply about her.
“We thank all who offered their prayers and their efforts on behalf of Haleh’s release. An extraordinary amount of people from around the world rallied to Haleh’s side…. This outpouring only reinforces Haleh’s life’s work on behalf of dialogue, understanding, and bringing people together.”
Al Jazeera was the first to carry the news of release. Interestingly, they quoted Dr. Esfandiari as describing her stay at Evin prison in positive terms:
As she left the prison, Esfandiari praised the staff and her treatment, even during the interrogations.These seem very curious statements about a prison which has long been known for its oppressive, filthy conditions and the brutality of its interrogation techniques, which have routinely included solitary confinement and torture. Perhaps we will get another story once Dr. Esfandiari is safely out of Iran.
“The gentlemen that I had contact with regarding interrogation were extraordinary, polite and respectful,” she said.
“They treated me very well in the section. I had a room, it was very big, it had a window. I could have air whenever I wanted. The food was very good.”
"I thank all the people who made an effort...so that I can go home now!" a smiling Haleh Esfandiari told Iranian state television as she stood in a parking area outside the gates of the prison.
According to the Middle East Times, “The move was welcomed as ‘encouraging news’ by US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe.”
On August 12th, Iranian legal authorities had announced the conclusion of their investigations on Esfandiari and Kian Tajbakhsh, a US-Iranian urban planning expert who works for the Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute. He has been held in jail on the same charges as Esfandiari since May. In July, Iranian state television broadcast a controversial documentary showing footage defined by the foreign ministry as the 'confessions' of the two 'US agents' willing to topple the Islamic Republic.
Both the Wilson Center and the New York-based Open Society Institute immediately criticized the Iranian government for the broadcast and dismissed the statements as "coerced."
There was no word whatsoever as to the Iranian government’s plans for Tajbakhsh, whose wife in the States is expecting a baby.
The other two Americans being detained are Ali Shakeri, a California businessman, who was picked up at Tehran's international airport as he was leaving just hours before Esfandiari, and Parnaz Azima, a correspondent for U.S.-funded Radio Farda.
Shakeri and Azima were also in Iran visiting ailing mothers. Shakeri's mother died while he was in Tehran.
State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos called on Iran to release all the Americans. "Our position has always been that Esfandiari as well as the other three have done nothing wrong, should not have been in the situation they found themselves in and should be free right now," he said.
AGI, the Italian news service, noted that “The news concerning the release of Esfandiari arrived while in Tehran, talks between the representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the people in charge of the controversial Iranian nuclear programme were taking place.” One can only hazard a guess whether the nuclear talks had any bearing on the decision to release Dr. Esfandiari.
The most important goal right now, for her many supporters, is to secure the next step: to get Haleh Esfandiari back home to the United States and her family.
To read more of Patricia's coverage of Haleh Esfandiari's imprisonment,
read Part I and Part II of this series.