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Supporters Urge Release of Imprisoned Iranian-American Scholar

Detention of Haleh Esfandiari described as “unfounded and fabricated”

At a May 31 press briefing, Hamilton -- president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars -- was joined by Esfandiari’s husband, Shaul Bakhash, a professor of history at George Mason University in Virginia.  The Woodrow Wilson Center, in Washington, is a nonpartisan institution engaged in the study of national and world affairs, and maintains “a neutral forum for free, open, and informed dialogue,” according to its Web site.

Hamilton and Bakhash told reporters that Esfandiari’s arrest in Tehran, on charges of espionage and endangering Iran’s national security, is entirely without merit.  Esfandiari, a dual citizen of Iran and the United States, had traveled to Tehran to visit her 93-year-old mother on December 21, 2006.  On December 30, 2006, while en route to the airport to catch a flight back to Washington, Esfandiari’s taxi was stopped by three masked, knife-wielding men who seized her belongings, including her Iranian and U.S. passports, said Hamilton.  When applying for replacement travel documents four days later, Esfandiari was invited to an “interview” by a man representing Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, Hamilton said.

For the following six weeks, she was subjected to repeated interrogations before being allowed each day to return to her mother’s apartment.  Then, on May 8, she was arrested by Iranian authorities and incarcerated in Evin Prison, where she remains.

“Today is the 25th day that Haleh has spent in a small cell in a notorious prison,” said Hamilton.  “No one has seen her.  We can only imagine what she is going through.”  He denounced the charges against Esfandiari, adding:  “The work she does at the Wilson Center is open, nonpartisan, and includes a broad range of views.  Our message to the Iranian government is simple: Haleh must be released.  Let her return to her family and to her work.”

Hamilton noted that the arrest of Esfandiari has generated widespread media attention, and that President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have urged Iranian authorities to release her.  Also, “there are well over a dozen letter-writing campaigns and petitions” to help free Esfandiari, said Hamilton.  (See related article.)

In a widely read commentary published May 30, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman scoffed at the notion that Esfandiari, a 67-year-old grandmother, could pose a threat to the Iranian government.  Her only crime, said Friedman, is “organizing academic conferences of Iranian and U.S. experts” to “talk about building a better Iran.”  Her advocacy of open societies and the free exchange of ideas explains the Iranian regime’s “paranoid” response to her scholarly work, he wrote.

Bakhash explained that his wife has been denied visits from her family and her lawyers since her arrest.  She has been permitted only “extremely brief phone calls with her mother … and nothing of substance is exchanged in these calls, or is allowed to be exchanged,” he said.  “I would assume there is a minder standing right next to her” when she speaks on the telephone.

Moreover, “the judge in charge of her case … refused her lawyers access to her file,” he added.

Bakhash said that his wife’s incarceration has been stressful for her family in the United States and particularly for her elderly mother in Tehran.  “I am concerned about Haleh’s mental and physical health, because of what we know about conditions and interrogation methods at the prison,” he said.  “This can involve solitary confinement, blindfolding, interrogations at night, threats and intimidation, and attempts to disorient” the detainee.

Esfandiari has medical issues that worry her family, as well.  Her mother has delivered two packages of clothing and medicine for her to the prison authorities, and Esfandiari has received the first package, containing medicine for her eyes and her bones.  However,“we are not sure if she got the second package,” said Bakhash.

Hamilton, responding to a question about U.S. initiatives on Esfandiari’s behalf, said:  “We hope that any discussions that take place between the U.S. and Iranian governments will include discussions of Haleh’s situation.”  The last such meeting focused on the topic of Iraq, he said, but he expressed optimism that “future meetings will include Haleh’s situation on the agenda.”

“We know that these charges [against Esfandiari] are totally unfounded and fabricated,” said Bakhash.  “We feel that the wisest course for the Iranian government is to release her.”  He cited the recent case of Tehran’s detention of British sailors who allegedly wandered into Iranian waters, and he praised the Iranian government for releasing the sailors in a timely fashion.

“This case, too, should be resolved” without delay, he said.

More information about the Woodrow Wilson Center is available on the center’s Web site.

(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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