My Mother's Interrogators

Haleh Esfandiari in an image from Iranian TV.
Haleh Esfandiari in an image from Iranian TV. (Islamic Republic Of Iran Broadcasting Via Associated Press)
By Haleh Bakhash
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 program broadcast nationwide yesterday -- announced with much fanfare by the Intelligence Ministry on Monday and expected to be continued today -- was supposed to show Iran and ostensibly the world my mother's complicity in a plan to undermine the Islamic Republic using, of all things, female activists and academics. But the footage turned out to be a typical secret police job of deception, vicious in intent yet clumsily contrived.

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.

The broadcast showed my mother "conversing" with someone off camera in what was meant to appear to be a relaxed setting. Her voice was strong. But I was shocked at her appearance. She has aged several years in just months. She looked gaunt -- she has lost a considerable amount of weight -- and pale.

The bulk of the program was made up of footage of years-old revolutions in Eastern Europe. Also shown was another jailed dual citizen, Kian Tajbakhsh, an urban planner arrested in May. My mother is seen saying that her job was "to identify speakers" and "to organize conferences." These and other statements she made about her work at the Wilson Center were cut off in mid-sentence and spliced with seemingly endless footage of civil unrest in Eastern European countries, as if organizing conferences and talks amounts to revolutionary activity. So it went from one sorry frame to another.

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. Her statements, to me, sounded wooden -- unnatural and coerced. But did she say anything incriminating? Certainly not.

What Iran's security authorities, in their infinite wisdom, are presenting to the world and to their domestic audience is a doctored "interview" in which dishonest cutting and splicing unconvincingly attempt to make the most ordinary statement appear to be part of a great "conspiracy," a harbinger of massive subversion.

As I watched my mother, I thought of our family's trauma over the past several months and of the suffering of other families whose parents, children, brothers and sisters have been unlawfully imprisoned in Iran and who cannot be heard.

But I also thought about the fact that our ordeal has been nothing compared with my mother's: nearly seven months of interrogations; more than 10 weeks in solitary confinement; threats of trial and long years of imprisonment; being alone in the hands of brutal men going about their brutal business.

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.

My mother has nothing to be ashamed of. They do.

The writer is a Washington lawyer.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company