Held in My Homeland

By Haleh Esfandiari
Sunday, September 16, 2007

The steel door closed with the clang of finality. Suddenly, I was cut off from the outside world, surrounded by four high walls. And completely alone.

In solitary confinement.

It's difficult to describe the feeling that overtakes you when you enter a prison cell. First comes overwhelming dread. Then disbelief: How did I end up a political prisoner? And doubt: Will I be here for weeks, months, years? Will I be able to bear up under the pressure?

On May 8, I was arrested by agents of Iran's intelligence ministry on suspicion of working to destabilize the Islamic Republic. For the next 105 days, this cell in Ward 209 of Tehran's Evin Prison would be my "home."

The cell -- really a room -- was of reasonable size, as it was two cells joined together. It was bare but clean. A brown wall-to-wall carpet covered the floor. In one corner lay a blanket and a copy of the Koran. Against one wall stood an iron sink with a broken faucet. Along another were two steel doors, only one of which was used to enter and exit the room. About eight feet up one of the walls were two rectangular windows that looked out onto a flat roof. They were open to let in fresh air, screened to keep out flies and barred to keep in prisoners.

Through these windows, I could glimpse the sky; sometimes at night I could see the moon. The third time I saw a full moon, it hit me that I had been imprisoned for three months.

I had flown to Tehran last December to visit my 93-year-old mother. But in January the authorities prevented me from leaving. I underwent many weeks of intensive interrogation by intelligence ministry officials, centering on my activities as director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. When my questioning abruptly stopped for six weeks, I thought I had answered all the queries satisfactorily. But then I was summoned to the ministry and taken into custody.

Twenty-four hours later, I was brought before a revolutionary court magistrate. He was polite but businesslike as he drafted an arrest warrant accusing me of endangering Iranian national security. The charge seemed ludicrous. I, a 67-year-old grandmother, was being accused of threatening the security of the most populous and powerful country in the Middle East because I had organized conferences in Washington on Iran and other states of the region. But the implications were frightening.

To be in solitary confinement means to cling to hope and to struggle with despair. For nearly four months, my only human contact was with prison guards and interrogators. Early in the third month, I was given access to newspapers and provided with a television set. But even then, I was unaware of the media attention my imprisonment had generated, of the campaign that my family and supporters had set in motion to secure my freedom, of the letters signed by hundreds of academics, intellectuals, and well-wishers on my behalf, and of various governments' intercessions with the Iranian authorities. All I knew was my confinement.

My questioning resumed in prison. It ran along the same lines as it had before my incarceration. But the sessions were shorter, never lasting more than three or four hours, and the approach was gentler. It made me wonder why I'd been imprisoned at all.

There's always a certain calculus in encounters between interrogator and detainee. I decided from the beginning to remain polite, to maintain a certain formality and distance and, because I had nothing to hide, to answer truthfully.

The interrogators' tone, in turn, remained correct and civil. They did not threaten; they never mentioned formal charges or a trial. On occasion, they took the trouble to explain their concerns about U.S. intentions in Iran -- explanations that seemed to reflect Intelligence Ministry thinking.

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