Monday, May 14, 2007

Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari imprisoned in Tehran

The prominent Iranian-American academic Haleh Esfandiari, head of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, was arrested without charge in December 2006 when she went to Tehran on a family visit. Since then she has been held under house arrest and repeatedly interrogated.

On May 8, the Iranian government escalated an already serious situation by putting Esfandiari in "Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where Human Rights Watch has documented cases of torture and detainee abuse." As Human Rights Watch noted in its most recent statement about this case (see below), Esfandiari's imprisonment coincides with an increased campaign of repression against internal dissidents (including student, labor, and women's-rights activists) by the Iranian government.
Iran should immediately release Iranian-American academic Haleh Esfandiari and allow her to return to the United States, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch expressed concern that Iranian authorities have subjected Esfandiari to arbitrary detention and coercive interrogation. [....]

Esfandiari, who is head of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, had traveled to Iran in December to visit her ailing mother. On December 30, prior to her planned departure from Iran, armed and masked men stopped her taxi and seized both her Iranian and US passports. Since December, Iranian authorities have failed to replace her passport and instead have subjected her to repeated and protracted interrogation sessions.

In a statement on May 10, the Wilson Center said that during interrogations, Esfandiari “was pressured to make a false confession or to falsely implicate the Wilson Center in activities in which it had no part.”

Human Rights Watch said the Iranian government’s mistreatment of Esfandiari recalls that of Ramin Jahanbegloo, a Canadian-Iranian philosopher whom Iranian authorities arbitrarily arrested in April 2006. [JW: For more on the case of Ramin Jahanbegloo, see here.] After nearly four months of detention and interrogation, Jahanbegloo “confessed” that his scholarly works had contributed to the planning of a “velvet revolution.”

Iran’s decision to increase its pressure on Esfandiari by detaining her comes at a time when the authorities have also escalated repressive campaigns against Iranian women’s right activists and student leaders. [Etc.]
The Iranian government's treatment of Esfandiari is, indeed, unpleasantly reminiscent of its imprisonment of Ramin Jahanbegloo, one of Iran's most prominent scholars and democratic intellectuals, in 2006. However, since Esfandiari is an American citizen (according to the BBC News report, she holds both US and Iranian citizenship), this action looks deliberately provocative as well as repressive.

(The Iranian authorities apparently do not recognize dual citizenship, and they are not shy about ignoring the foreign citizenship status of people they consider Iranian nationals. In 2003, for example, the journalist Zahra Kazemi, who held both Canadian and Iranian citizenship and lived in Montreal, was arrested in Tehran while covering a demonstration, accused of taking photographs of Evin Prison, and beaten to death while in custody. Of course, there is no reason to expect that the detention of Haleh Esfandiari will end so drastically. They are probably trying to extract a false "confession" of some sort from her, as they did with Jahanbegloo.)

=> Naturally, the Iranian regime has accused Esfandiari of being a Zionist agent as well as a US spy. From the BBC report:
Iran's Kayhan newspaper has accused Ms Esfandiari of spying for the US and Israel and of trying to incite a democratic revolution in the country.

Her husband, Shaul Bakhash, denied the newspaper's allegations.

"It is a false and hollow accusation that Haleh Esfandiari is one of the 'principle instruments' of Israel, or a Mossad spy service, in advancing the strategy of a 'velvet revolution' in Iran," he said in a statement sent to Associated Press news agency.

"It is a lie that Haleh Esfandiari had 'undercover assignments' or that she was one of the 'media spies' in Iran."
=> On May 11 the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association of North America sent a strong letter of protest to the Iranian government. As MESA's letter emphasizes:
Harassment and detention of scholars is always cause for grave concern, but in this case it should be noted that the scholar in question is widely respected both for her knowledge and ability to provide clear and dispassionate analysis. Her treatment sends a chilling message to scholars throughout the world.
Amen. --Jeff Weintraub

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Human Rights Watch
May 12, 2007
Iran: Jailed Iranian-American Scholar Faces Coercion
Arbitrary Arrest of Haleh Esfandiari Coincides With a Week of Crackdowns


(Washington, DC, May 12, 2007) – Iran should immediately release Iranian-American academic Haleh Esfandiari and allow her to return to the United States, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch expressed concern that Iranian authorities have subjected Esfandiari to arbitrary detention and coercive interrogation.

On May 8, officials at the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence summoned Esfandiari for questioning, arrested her without warrant or explanation, and transferred her to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where Human Rights Watch has documented cases of torture and detainee abuse. Prior to Esfandiari’s arrest, ministry officials had repeatedly interrogated her in their offices on Africa Street in Tehran, and subsequently in their main building on Khaje Abdollah Ansari Street.

Esfandiari, who is head of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, had traveled to Iran in December to visit her ailing mother. On December 30, prior to her planned departure from Iran, armed and masked men stopped her taxi and seized both her Iranian and US passports. Since December, Iranian authorities have failed to replace her passport and instead have subjected her to repeated and protracted interrogation sessions.

In a statement on May 10, the Wilson Center said that during interrogations, Esfandiari “was pressured to make a false confession or to falsely implicate the Wilson Center in activities in which it had no part.”

“President Ahmadinejad is desperately trying to discredit his government’s many critics as American pawns,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Haleh Esfandiari is a well-known advocate of dialogue between Iranian and American scholars, and the Iranian authorities are trying to coerce her into making a false confession to incriminate Iranian writers and activists.”

Human Rights Watch said the Iranian government’s mistreatment of Esfandiari recalls that of Ramin Jahanbegloo, a Canadian-Iranian philosopher whom Iranian authorities arbitrarily arrested in April 2006. After nearly four months of detention and interrogation, Jahanbegloo “confessed” that his scholarly works had contributed to the planning of a “velvet revolution.”

Iran’s decision to increase its pressure on Esfandiari by detaining her comes at a time when the authorities have also escalated repressive campaigns against Iranian women’s right activists and student leaders.

On May 9, three students from Tehran Polytechnic University – Pouya Mahmoudian, Majid Sheikhpour and Majid Tavakoli – responded to a summons to appear before a Revolutionary Court in Tehran. Authorities then arrested and transferred them to Evin prison. At least four other students from Tehran Polytechnic University are also arbitrarily detained in Evin. All are active in student organizations. None has been charged with any offense.

Student and women’s rights activist, Zeynab Peyghambarzadeh, is also being held in Evin prison. She was among the 33 women arrested by security forces on March 4 when they gathered before a branch of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court where other women’s rights activists were being prosecuted. On May 7, authorities detained Peyghambarzadeh for failing to provide the bail the court recently set in relation to her pending case. She is currently being held in Unit 3 (youth section) of Evin prison. When Peyghambarzadeh’s father and lawyer arrived at the Revolutionary Court on May 8 to put up her bail, court authorities prevented them from entering the court.
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Related Material:
Iran: Top Scholar Detained Without Charge
(Press Release, May 5, 2006)

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