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Story Publication logo July 13, 2009

Times Reporter Recounts Life in Iran Prison


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After a hotly contested presidential election that resulted in street riots and a disputed claim to...


Female flight attendants in head scarves had begun attending to passengers inside the Iran Air aircraft bound for Dubai. But as long as the plane remained on the tarmac, I couldn't feel free.

What began as a planned, weeklong trip to cover Iran's presidential elections had turned into a monthlong saga that included nearly three weeks of solitary confinement and a final indignity: a night in a jail cell at the airport for no apparent reason. Perhaps an alternative power center ordered that I be kept, or the same faction that had decided to release me had second thoughts.

So I suppressed my exhilaration and anticipation, and refrained from talking on my obviously bugged cell phone -- unlike the previous day when I had called friends and devoured the news of what had happened in Iran while I was incommunicado. I scanned the aisles of the Iran Air plane for any suspicious-looking characters without carry-on luggage who might move to arrest me again.

Our scheduled departure time of 8 p.m. came and went. The doors remained open to Imam Khomeini International Airport's departure hall. Somewhere inside, Greek Ambassador Nikos Garrylidis was anxiously waiting for me to call and confirm that we were taxiing down the runway. He was taking no chances after the previous evening, when airport police waited for him to leave before rearresting me -- setting off another 24 hours of frantic diplomacy between Tehran and Athens.

I thought I was not taking any exceptional chances as I covered Iran's June 12 presidential elections. Having lived in Iran for 2 1/2 years between 2004 and 2007, I thought I knew the red lines. But the turmoil that erupted after the Iranian government announced a "landslide" victory for incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was like nothing Iran had experienced since the 1979 Islamic revolution. And the rules that had protected journalists, particularly foreign ones, no longer seemed to apply.

Before the protests, the Iranian government appeared delighted to have issued visas to nearly 500 international journalists -- including a fake one from Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" -- to cover the elections. Here was an opportunity to flaunt Iran's brand of Islamic participatory democracy and rub the unprecedented turnout into the noses of Western foes and authoritarian Arab rivals.

But many of the more than 40 million people who voted for one of four sanctioned candidates were infuriated by the perception that the results had been manipulated to give Mr. Ahmadinejad a margin of 11 million votes over Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister.

Things turned nasty as tens of thousands of Iranians flooded the streets and faced off against riot police deployed outside sensitive government buildings. The hundreds of journalists suddenly were no longer a prestige project but a dangerous liability whose reporting was besmirching Iran's image abroad.

Some European cameramen and photographers fled after their equipment was smashed or confiscated. The government barred all journalists from reporting on the streets and refused to extend visas for foreigners.

As a citizen of Greece, which has relatively good relations with Iran for a Western country, I hoped against hope that I might find a way to stay. Little did I know that the Ministry of Intelligence was about to grant my wish.

As I dutifully tried to leave on June 17 -- the day my visa expired -- a plainclothes security agent accosted me at the airport and told me I "wouldn't be flying" that night.

Fearing that I would be hauled away and that no one would know what had happened to me, I yelled out to a woman who looked to be Western that I was a journalist for The Washington Times and that she should contact my editor with news of my arrest.

The security guard pummeled me to punish me for resisting arrest and stuffed me into the back of a car with my head between my knees. Days later, as I sat in a cell in Tehran's notorious Evin prison, I wondered whether I would be held for months like Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi or others accused of promoting a "velvet" revolution.

The 8-by-5-foot cell was high-ceilinged and had a window abutting the roof that was striped with 17 metal bars. A bathroom adjoined the cell and held a battered metal sink, a Turkish toilet and a shower head directly over the hole. Two fixtures in the ceiling provided constant light and introduced me to a disorienting world without darkness. The only reading matter was a Koran in Arabic.

Without a watch, I marked time by the Fajr, Zohr and Maghreb -- the three audible prayers in Shi'ite Islam -- and by meal times. The food was not bad: rice known as pollo served with meat or chicken and a healthy yogurt drink called doog. I ate sparingly, seeking to prepare my body for the possibility that I might go on a hunger strike if the bogus espionage charges against me ever went before a court. In three weeks, I lost 22 pounds.

Contrasting with my solitude, it was all hustle and bustle in the corridors. Evin -- used to house political prisoners since the time of the shah -- was reliving its glory days and was stuffed to the gills.

Under my blindfold, I could glimpse rows of other blindfold men sitting cross-legged in the middle of the halls or facing the wall as intelligence officials and interrogators dashed in and out of offices or pulled prisoners out of cells for questioning.

The prison was so full that a long-unused wing, high on the rocky hill where Evin is situated, was pressed back into service as a clearing center.

I was transferred to that wing after 14 days inSection 209 -- the part of the prison controlled by the Intelligence Ministry. As I made my way in, I saw men in the communal showers, heard the hubbub of voices from interrogation rooms and noted the detritus of an office: desks, chairs and a photocopying machine parked in the corridor.

Officials were crowded into carpeted rooms whose entryways were a jumble of slippers and sandals. Security personnel pored over what appeared to be hastily assembled files of surveillance photos, trying to identify repeat offenders in the demonstrations that had continued for days after the presidential elections.

One of my interrogators, speaking with apparent sympathy, said, "If only you could be here as a journalist and not as a prisoner. There are so many fascinating stories to be told. Knife pullers, drug addicts, terrorists -- they're all around you."

My first bazjoo, or interrogator, was a silky-voiced presence with a rough streak who slapped me if I dared look behind me where he sat and conducted our discussions. His questions were general and betrayed how little he knew about who I was: Who were the Iranians I had met outside Iran? What payment methods did my newspaper use? Where had I gone over the past week?

When I dallied or refused to answer a question, he would fly into a rage and shout at me that I wasn't there to "just eat and sleep. We want answers from you; you are accused of heinous crimes."

When I answered a question about the fees paid me by my newspapers, he laughed derisively and told me, "You should have told me earlier, and I would have paid you that money out of my own pocket."

One night, a guard came and pulled me out of my cell for what I could tell would be a special session. Entering the interrogation room, I sat at the front, removed my blindfold and stared at green uneven walls from which a hairy substance protruded, presumably for soundproofing. The hush did not conceal the presence of several men sitting in the back.

When the questioning started, my bazjoo's voice was an octave higher, almost theatrical in its showmanship. He clearly had a special audience to impress that evening.

"How are you spending your time, Iason?" he asked.

"I'm reading the Koran," I told him, truthfully.

"Can you recite a verse?"

I recited the Fatiha and Surat al-Naas -- the opening and last verses of the Muslim holy book. When I ended, a subtle barometric shift had occurred in the room's atmosphere. The interrogation flowed more convivially.

My bazjoo handed me two surveillance images of myself as a younger man chatting with a tall British diplomat in the theological center of Qom four years ago. The interrogator seemed to think it was conclusive proof that I was passing secrets to perfidious Albion. I pointed out that we were surrounded by people and the scene was clearly some sort of social gathering.

Undeterred, he pulled out transcripts of SMS messages sent from my phone. The exchange on which he focused was between my number and someone called Sultan. They were a mixture of English and Persian, most of them flirtatious, but nothing I had never written. Then it dawned on me that they were the romantic writings of the owner of the phone who had lent it to me for temporary use. Laughing, I pointed that out. The interrogation ended soon afterward.

Four empty days followed. A new round of interrogations opened with a new team whose members were more psychologically slanted to get to know me as a human being, rather than as a suspected criminal. By the end of the third session, I and my interrogators had delved deep into Iranian and Islamic history, discussing the concept of Westoxification -- the lure of the West for Easterners -- expounded decades earlier by Iranian revolutionary philosopher Jalal al-e Ahmad. We also talked about velvet revolutions, my education at Oxford and Harvard, and how I viewed the street demonstrations.

Satisfied that I was not a spy, my bazjoos congratulated me and apologized that the process of verifying my innocence had taken three weeks instead of 48 hours. "Special circumstances, you see," they said. "Unprecedentedly full jails, more work than we've ever had to do."

In hindsight -- and sitting happily in Greece with my family -- I have to say that I don't resent the loss of those three weeks. My time in Evin taught me how to focus my thoughts and to slow down my physical and mental being to accord with the slow passing of time. But just as it felt wrong to be leaving Iran with protesters still flooding the streets, so do I feel a kind of sorrow at abandoning all those souls whose voices I had heard outside my cell in Evin.

As the airplane finally trundled toward takeoff, I snapped out of my reverie. The flight attendants wheeled around trolleys and distributed shrink-wrapped red roses to passengers to celebrate the birthday of Imam Ali, the fourth caliph of the early Islamic period and key figure for Shi'ite Muslims.

Iraqi and other Arab pilgrims who choose Iran Air for its Islamic atmosphere accepted the roses in bundles, then stowed them in their seat compartments.

Roses wrapped in plastic, withering in the dry cabin atmosphere of an airplane to commemorate a religious figure dead for 14 centuries: It seemed a perfect metaphor for a country whose government is based on a seventh-century religion and is struggling to accommodate the 21st-century aspirations of a young and vibrant population.

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