By Ladan Mahini
Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi spoke at Price Center West Theater on Feb. 25 to promote her book, “Between Two Worlds”. In January 2009, Saberi was taken into custody by Iranian officials and spent the next 100 days in Evin Prison. After being forced to make a false confession, the Iranian court system sentenced her to eight years in prison. With the help of an international intervention, Saberi’s sentencing was reduced and she was freed five months later.
Saberi discussed her experience as an Iranian prisoner and the issues surrounding her arrest—including the human rights violations she witnessed, Iran’s prisoners of conscience and the valuable lessons she learned from her cellmates. Captivity in Iran taught Saberi important truths about the freedoms she took for granted in America, strengthened her against verbal threats and educated her perspective on the current situation in Iran and the Middle East.
Saberi’s talk was an informative introduction to the struggles faced by young journalists in a foreign country. The talk was thought provoking and delivered emotionally, each word holding personal significance. In light of the current events in the Middle East and North Africa, Saberi provides readers with an insight to the state of a region of the world that is significant at this moment in history, but unfamiliar and complicated to many Americans. The courage that Saberi displayed in speaking in public about her difficult experience in Iran was nothing short of inspirational.
PROSPECT: Could you tell us about the incident that occurred on
January 31, 2009, when you were arrested?
SABERI: There were four intelligence agents who came to my apartment in Tehran. They arrested me and took me to an unmarked building where they questioned me for several hours and they claimed that the book that I was writing about Iranian society was a cover for espionage for the U.S.. I said “This isn’t true. I am not a spy, it is just a book” and they said, “Since you are not cooperating, we have to take you to Evin Prison.’ And they took me to Evin Prison that night, which is the most notorious prison in Iran where many political prisoners and prisoners of conscious are held, and that was the beginning of my 100-day imprisonment.
PROSPECT: Tell me about those 100 days. What did you do to pass the time? What did you think about?
SABERI: Well, the first two weeks were much more difficult for me. I was in solitary confinement, as many prisoners are. I met one prisoner after I was released, who had been in solitary confinement for two years. For me two weeks was very difficult. I think people need human interaction, and that’s one reason I think the captors put people in solitary confinement—they realize [people] become very hopeless and helpless and they begin to rely on their captors as a way out. So, when I gained some courage and inner peace, I decided I should exercise in prison. I was able to get books, books that were allowed by my captors. I would pray a lot, and I would think a lot. I had a lot of time to think, and one of the things that I thought about was freedom and freedoms that I had taken for granted before, but freedoms that I have now come to value much more than before.
PROSPECT: What were some of those freedoms that you thought about?
SABERI: Freedom of speech, freedom to write a book without being accused of being a spy, freedom to put my head on a pillow, freedom to turn off the lights at night, freedom to walk down the street, freedom to walk without handcuffs on or without blindfolds on. Freedom to make a phone call without being forced to lie. Freedom to write—I mean, I had no pen or paper. All of these things were very basic freedoms that I think all of us often take for granted, until we’re deprived of them. And now that I’m free, I realize how valuable it is to have freedom of speech, and to be in a place where I can speak out. If I were speaking like this in Iran, I would be arrested, and you would probably be arrested for interviewing me. So I’m very grateful for those freedoms, and I’m glad that there are many people who are using those freedoms to speak out.
PROSPECT: What was the atmosphere like in Evin Prison? Were there any physical or psychological threats made against you?
SABERI: I did not have physical threats made against me, although my captors did say they would find my family, and I assumed the worst in that situation. Even though my family was overseas, when you are in that situation you believe these threats and I knew that they were capable of these sorts of things. Iran’s authorities have been implicated in mysterious assassinations of people overseas in the past. I knew of instances of torture and death in prisons, so I was aware of these accounts. The threats that were made against me, that you could call physical threats, were that I could get the death penalty if I did not make the so-called confession to say that I was a spy. And my captors also threatened that if I came out and spoke, that they could come after me and kill me and make it look like I died in a car accident. Which, honestly, they haven not done yet. But I have heard that they have made this threat against other people as well, and maybe they have other priorities right now or maybe they are just threats, I don’t know. I think they like to have power over people in their custody and [maintain it] once they are freed by inciting fear in them, they are very good at this. But if we, who have lived in their custody and are freed live with this fear, then it is just another victory for them.
PROSPECT: What are your thoughts on current events in the Middle East, and especially in Iran regarding the Green Movement?
SABERI: Well, I think what happened in Egypt and Tunisia inspired, actually reignited, the movement for democracy in Iran. A lot of people there thought “Well if they could do it, if people there could do it, then maybe we could it too.” And so we saw tens of thousands of Iranians going to the streets again and demonstrating earlier this month. There were some similarities between what happened in those countries and what is happening in Iran, but there are also some differences. I think the similarities are that there are a lot of common demands. There is a large youth population in Iran. Many of them want a more democratic, tolerant government that respects their rights. They want jobs, they want better economic situations, they want more freedoms—social freedoms, political freedoms. They want to be free from fear. They want to feel that they have a role in the destiny of their lives and the destiny of their countries. Many of them want better relations with the outside world, including the West, including the U.S. Many Iranians want better relations with America and the American people.
There are also differences. In Iran, they have revolutionary guards and the Basij security forces, which are ideologically charged, and they have shown less restraint in general towards people who protest. Also, Iran is less likely to care about, or depend upon, the good will of the U.S. And the allies of the Islamic Republic, countries like China and Russia, are less likely to hold the regime accountable for human rights violations. So these are some differences that we see. I do think that it’s inevitable that the country moves towards democracy in the future, because this is what, I believe, the large majority of Iranians want. Of course, their society is monolithic and I think there is a minority that likes the status quo, but hopefully the country will move toward more democracy in the future.
PROSPECT: If the regime introduces reforms, are the people willing to support the regime or not? We already know that the younger population voices their desires for more democracy—
SABERI: I think what they call the “green movement: is a very colorful movement and there are different opinions about what should be done, but these people are united by what they oppose, which is the status quo, and a regime in power that is violating human rights with so much brutality and force. I think many of these people would like a different regime, many of them would like reform within the regime. But I think the longer this goes on and the longer their needs and desires are not met, and the more force that is used against them, there is more of a possibility that moderates will turn to greater demands. Those who were just saying that they wanted their votes counted are now yelling “death to the dictator” and calling for the overthrow of this regime.
PROSPECT: Do you plan on ever returning to Iran?
SABERI: I would like to someday go back, but it depends on the situation. I really did fall in love with the country, and that is why I stayed for six years. My initial time was just a couple of years. I got hooked. And the Iranian people, so many of them were very kind to me. So, I hope one day I could go back, but right now it would not be a good idea.
Photo courtesy of Lord Mariser.