Dr. Haleh Esfandiari, a 67-year-old grandmother of two and American scholar, is being held in one of Iran's most notorious prisons. She's accused of trying to topple the Iranian government — a serious charge, potentially punishable by death.
Esfandiari, who is a citizen of both Iran and the United States, was first prevented from leaving Iran last December. She was placed under house arrest before being thrown into jail two weeks ago.
“We don't know why they're targeting my mother,” Haleh Bakhash, Esfandiari's daughter told Meredith Vieira on the TODAY show Wednesday. “Iranian radio said my mother works for an organization that's interested in changing the government in Iran.”
Esfandiari was in Iran for a two-week visit with her 93-year-old mother, who wasn't feeling well.
“It’s clearly very worrisome to have a person dear to you, and somebody who clearly hasn't been involved in these things, to be implicated in what is, after all, a very serious charge,” Esfandiari's husband, Dr. Shaul Bakhash, told NBC's Andrea Mitchell in a separate interview.
Bakhash is a professor of Middle East History at George Mason University in suburban Washington. Esfandiari, who emigrated to the U.S. from Iran, is a director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington. As part of her job, she has sponsored many exchanges between scholars representing the gamut of views on the two countries and their relations with each other and the world.
'I want to be back home'
On Dec. 30, Esfandiari was on her way to the airport when, “Her car was stopped by a group of men wielding knives who took her passports away and all of her belongings,” Haleh Bakhash told Vieira.
She was interrogated frequently at first, but she was allowed to go to her mother’s home at night.
On May 6, Haleh Bakhash spoke with her mother, who then told her that she hadn't been interrogated for two months.
The conversation wasn't remarkable, Bakhash told Vieira: “‘How are you? I miss you. I miss the grandchildren, I really want to see them. I want to be back home,’” Esfandiari said.
Two days later, Esfandiari was taken to Evin Prison, where she's been held ever since. Her family has not been allowed to talk to her, and the lawyers they've hired have not been allowed to see her.
Evin Prison is known as a site where hard interrogations are conducted.
“We have seen others, men in their 20s and 30s, who have broken under the pressure of interrogation,” said Shaul Bakhash.
“Evin is notorious for treating its prisoners badly, for subjecting them to long hours of interrogation in an effort to extract false confessions under duress,” Haleh Bakhash told Vieira. “We’re concerned she may be kept in solitary confinement when she’s not being interrogated. We have no access to her, so we don’t even know how her health is.”
‘Caught in the crossfire’
On Monday, Iran's state-run television reported that the academic had been charged with trying to topple the Iranian government.
The Associated Press reported that Iranian TV said that “she and the Wilson Center were conspiring together to topple the government by setting up a network ‘against the sovereignty of the country.’ ”
“Haleh was not engaged in any activities to undermine any government, including the Iranian government. Nor does the Wilson Center engage in such activities,” said Lee H. Hamilton, Wilson Center director and co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group. “There is not one scintilla of evidence to support these outrageous claims.”
“People like Haleh Esfandiari get caught in the crossfire of the animosity between Iran and the United States,” Iran expert Afshin Molavi told NBC.
Those ill feelings go back to the overthrow of the American-backed Shah by Islamist rebels and the subsequent hostage crisis involving personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran that lasted from 1979 to 1981.
Besides Esfandiari, two other Iranian Americans have also had their passports confiscated and been denied permission to leave the country, although only Esfandiari has been arrested. Analysts feel that the detentions are a reaction by the Iranian government to $75 million that President Bush has earmarked to promote democracy in Iran. None of that money has been used by the Wilson Center, officials there have said.
“The government's justification for these actions is usually couched as a response to the State Department's announcement to provide financial support to Iranian civil society and non-government organizations,” Hadi Ghaemi of Human Rights Watch told The Washington Post. “This has fueled a perception among the Iranian politicians that the U.S. is committed to instigating a ‘velvet revolution’ in Iran. Ironically, the Iranian Americans who travel to Iran mostly stay away from politics and are not by any means part of the ‘regime change’ advocates. But they have become pawns in the hands of Iranian government as it charts its strategy in engaging with the U.S.”
Fighting to free Haleh
Esfandiari's family would prefer that the U.S. government have as little involvement as possible in efforts to free her. Instead, they have asked Swiss diplomats to intervene. Also, Nobel Peace Prize winner Sharin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights attorney, has asked to represent Esfandiari, but has not been recognized by Iranian authorities.
U.S. State Department officials are scheduled to meet with Iranian counterparts next week to discuss the situation in Iraq, but U.S. officials have said Esfandiari will not be a topic of those talks.
The family has established a Web site, www.freehaleh.org, where visitors can sign an online petition calling for Esfandiari's release. Her supporters are also asking people to write or call the Iranian mission to the U.N. asking for her to be allowed to return home.