Friday, May 18, 2007

Scholar Haleh Esfandiari Held Unjustly in Iran

Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Institute for Scholars and wife of George Mason University Robinson Professor of History Shaul Bakhash, was arrested without cause in late December 2006 and prevented from returning home to the United States. The willful intimidation of scholars by any government is unacceptable and must be vigorously opposed by all those who are in favor of open, scholarly dialogue. The Woodrow Wilson International Center, a non-partisan academic institution, has funded the research of numerous noted American Middle Eastern specialists.
Shirin Ebadi [above], Noble Peace Prize winner and a longtime lawyer and human rights advocate, has been denied access to Esfandiari, whom Ebadi said she would represent. Ebadi herself has been imprisoned numerous times for her political activism and stands for the human rights of political prisoners held by the present Iranian government, in most aspects a revolutionary 'ulama (religious scholars) oligarchy. It should be noted that many of the activists currently critiquing the government are members of the 'ulama, such as Mohsen Kadivar and Grand Ayatullah Husayn 'Ali Montazeri.
What follows is a slightly edited version of the May 10, 2007 press release from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars:

Haleh Esfandiari [RIGHT], a dual Iranian-American national, was arrested in Tehran on May 8 and incarcerated in the Evin Prison. She traveled to Tehran in late December to visit her 93-year-old mother who was/is quite ill. On December 30, on her way to the airport to catch a flight back to Washington, the taxi in which Dr. Esfandiari was riding was stopped by three masked, knife-wielding men. They took away her baggage and handbag, including her Iranian and American passports.

Four days later, when applying for replacement Iranian travel documents at the passport office, Esfandiari was invited to an ‘interview’ by a man who, it turned out, represented Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence. This began a series of interrogations that stretched out over the next six weeks. These interrogations took place at two different locations, sometimes continuing for as many as four days a week, sometimes stretching across seven and eight hours in a single day. Although she went home every evening, the some 50 hours of questioning were unpleasant and not free from intimidation and threat. The questioning focused almost entirely on the activities and programs of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center.

Esfandiari answered all questions fully; when she understandably could not remember details of programs stretching back five and even eight years, the staff at the Wilson Center provided her all the information requested. As a public organization, all Wilson Center activities are on the public record. In fact, the interrogators could have obtained virtually all the information they sought in a far less cumbersome way—by a few clicks on the Wilson Center website and through Wilson Center publications.

Repeatedly during the interrogation, Esfandiari was pressured to make a false confession or to falsely implicate the Wilson Center in activities in which it had no part. On February 20th, Lee Hamilton, president and director of the Wilson Center, wrote to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about her case, in order to call to his attention the dire situation in which Esfandiari had been placed by elements of the government of which the president may not have been aware. He pointed out the obvious: that the Wilson Center’s mission is to provide a forum for the exchange of views; that the Wilson Center does not take positions on issues; and that it does not try to influence or to determine specific policies or directions of the Iranian government or any government in the Middle East.

Hamilton also pointed out that there is no “agenda” behind Wilson Center programs on the Middle East, including Iran; that he would not allow it; nor would Esfandiari. He asked President Ahmadinejad to use his good offices to help send her home. This letter was transmitted to Tehran by the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations. President Ahmadinejad has yet to acknowledge or reply to it. Attempts to resolve this issue through various channels and without publicity were also not successful.

The lengthy interrogations stopped on February 14. Except for one threatening phone call on February 17, she has heard nothing from her interrogators for ten weeks. A few days ago, she was telephoned again. She was again invited to “cooperate.” In effect, she was being asked to make a confession. She refused to make the false statements apparently required of her.

On Monday, May 7th, she was summoned to the Ministry of Intelligence once again. When she arrived for her appointment on Tuesday morning, she was put into a car and taken to Evin prison. She was allowed only one phone call to her mother. Her family has not heard from her since. This needless harassment and unwarranted action has placed great strain on Esfandiari’s family. Her mother, at 93, is in frail health. She herself needs to see her doctors and has been prevented from doing so by the withholding of her passport and, much worse, incarceration in Evin prison. Despite numerous quiet and diplomatic efforts by many countries, organizations, and individuals ever since she was robbed of her passports December 30, 2006 and prevented from leaving Iran, she has been unable to obtain permission to leave Iran and join her husband Shaul Bakhash [RIGHT] and family in the United States.

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