Iranian Scholar's Daughter Tells of Mother's Distress

The United States Senate is calling for Iran to release detained scholar Haleh Esfandiari immediately. Esfandiari is being held in Iran on suspicion of espionage. The scholar's daughter, Haleh Bakhash, speaks openly about her mother. She's joined by Carla Koppell of the Institute for Inclusive Security. Together, they provide an update on the situation.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

This week, we learned that Iran has imprisoned Kian Tajbakhsh. He is the fourth Iranian American they've taken into custody in recent months. He works with the Open Society Institute, a think-tank funded by George Soros that Iranian officials have accused of trying to undermine the government.

President Bush spoke about these detentions at his press conference yesterday.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: And we've made it very clear to the Iranian government that the detention on good, decent American souls who were there to, you know, be beneficial citizens is not acceptable behavior.

MARTIN: Iran has leveled similar charges against Haleh Esfandiari. She directs the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. Esfandiari had been in Iran to visit her elderly mother when authorities stopped her from returning to the U.S.

Early in May, Iranian officials imprisoned her and just this week charged her with acting against the state. On Thursday, the Senate passed a resolution calling for Iran to release Esfandiari and drop all charges.

Joining us now is Carla Koppell. She is the director of the Initiative for Inclusive Security. That group supports the participation of women in peace processes around the world. Welcome.

Ms. CARLA KOPPELL (Director, Initiative for Inclusive Security): Thank you.

MARTIN: Also with us in our studio is Haleh Bakhash, Esfandiari's daughter. Thank you for being with us.

Ms. HALEH BAKHASH (Daughter of Haleh Esfandiari): Thank you.

MARTIN: Haleh, how did you first hear of your mother's detention? And when was the last time you heard from her?

Ms. BAKHASH: I last spoke to my mother on Sunday, May 6th. And on Tuesday, May 8th, I received a phone call from my father telling me that my mother had been taken to the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran.

MARTIN: Is your father able to speak with her? Has he been able to speak with her directly?

Ms. BAKHASH: Nobody at all has been able to see my mother since she was incarcerated. My 93-year-old grandmother tried three days in a row to visit my mother but was turned away at the prison gates. And the only news we've had from my mother have been very brief five or 10-second phone calls that she's been allowed to make to my grandmother.

MARTIN: Carla, what is your connection with Ms. Esfandiari's situation?

Ms. KOPPELL: Well, Dr. Esfandiari was a colleague of mine when I was at the Wilson Center. She also is a close collaborator of the Initiative for Inclusive Security. We've worked with her on programs to assist Iraqi women in the transition. We have worked with her on other programs with Middle Eastern women. And she and I are friends.

We have been involved for the last few weeks since her detention in sponsoring a Web site, www.freehaleh.org, which has gathered over 4,000 signatures to support her release and are asking the Iranian government to reverse their error.

MARTIN: If you would just briefly tell us, what has been the nature of Dr. Esfandiari's work here and at the Woodrow Wilson Center?

Ms. KOPPELL: At the Woodrow Wilson Center and here in the United States and around the world, Dr. Esfandiari really is a very important bridge builder and interlocutor for disparate voices about Middle East policy throughout the region. She's an advocate for women's rights. She's an advocate for openness. She is really somebody who has championed the idea that you should bring all opinions and all views to the fore.

MARTIN: Haleh, your mother had made previous trips to Iran over the years.

Ms. BAKHASH: Yes, she had.

MARTIN: Had she ever expressed any concern for her safety previously?

Ms. BAKHASH: Never. My mother had been going back and forth to Iran since, probably, 1992. Primarily, these were private visits to visit her own mother. And she's a very cautious person, so had she thought for one moment that her life would in jeopardy by going to Iran, she would not have gone.

MARTIN: Now, Haleh, I said that charges have been brought against her, but do we, in fact, even know if that is the case?

Ms. BAKHASH: No, actually, that's not entirely accurate. The government-controlled newspaper in Iran issued a statement of allegations about my mother, claiming that she works for an organization that's interested in a change of government in Iran. But there's no foundation to those allegations. And as Lee Hamilton, the director of the Wilson Center, said at a recent press conference, there's not a shred of evidence to support those allegations.

MARTIN: Do you have a theory about why she's being detained?

Ms. BAKHASH: We really don't. I mean, she is an individual. She's a scholar. She had gone on a private visit to Iran. And our goal is just to have her be freed and brought home to us to see her family.

MARTIN: Do you have knowledge of the conditions in which she's being held?

Ms. BAKHASH: We know from other people who've been incarcerated in Evin Prison that conditions there are extremely harsh. It's probable that my mother is being kept in solitary confinement. It's also extremely likely that she's being interrogated for long hours every day. These interrogations are generally done by blindfolding the person. And the interrogations are harsh, psychologically brutal, and the purpose of them is to extract a false statement under duress.

MARTIN: How old is your mother, if I may ask?

Ms. BAKHASH: My mother is 67 years old. She's a grandmother of two. She's a fit and strong person, but at the same time, we worry a great deal about her health. When she's under stress, her arthritis acts up. And obviously, she's been going through this for five months. So we're extremely concerned.

MARTIN: Carla, what about you? Do you have a theory about why Dr. Esfandiari is being held, and the other scholars who've recently been detained?

Ms. KOPPELL: I don't, and I would never claim to be an Iran expert. But I can say that someone like Haleh is really emblematic of women peace builders around the world who's really working to build bridges. And that it's important, although unfortunate, that this is a circumstance that we recognize the important and critical work and role that they play and dedicate ourselves to their release and to the correction of any errors in judgment by the governments around the world.

MARTIN: Do you have any knowledge of the other individuals being held?

Ms. KOPPELL: I do not. I mean, I know who they are from reading the media, but I don't know them.

MARTIN: The charges that are being discussed about Haleh's mother, what - are these kind of charges generally leveled against scholars in Iran?

Ms. KOPPELL: I know that they have been leveled in countries around the world against, sometimes, people who really are promoting free thought and free ideas. I know that one of the ironies that Lee Hamilton has seen in this situation is that in Washington, Haleh is viewed as somebody who has always given voice also to pro-Iranian forces and their views, and that she really believes that everybody should have a voice and that there should be an open debate. And so I know that that's something that's important to her, that everybody should have that voice. And to think that she would do anything to undermine or eliminate the voice of the Iranian government and their perspective is completely unfounded.

MARTIN: You know, obviously, the timing of this raises questions, because now Iran is under scrutiny because many international observers believe that they're pursuing a nuclear weapons program in violation of international agreements. And is there some way in which you think these might be related?

Ms. KOPPELL: I don't know. I really - I don't understand the motive, particularly given the kind of person and the work that Haleh has done. I couldn't draw that connection. But I wouldn't also presume to be an analyst of the situation and to understand that.

MARTIN: Can you tell us about the progress of the petition that you have started to secure her release? How is that going?

Ms. KOPPELL: I think the petition is going very well. I mean, we've - it's been posted for less than two weeks; it has over 4,000 signatures of people from around the world. I know that the Initiative for Inclusive Security has a network of women peace builders, over 500 women peace builders around the world. We've sent it out to our network and have seen signatures of women peace builders from Northern Ireland, from Iraq, from South Africa, from around the world have been signing this petition, I think, as an homage to their work and to the mobilization that comes when you see a sister, so to speak, who's under duress. So I'm very heartened by that.

Just yesterday, it's a funny story, but I was at my son's soccer game and the mother's were coming over to me and saying, oh, can I send the petition to more people? I signed when you sent it to me, can I send it to more? I said, absolutely.

So I think there is growing attention to this, growing knowledge of it and growing interest. I don't see that waning. And we are really working to bring as many voices as we possibly can to the fore around this agenda. It's not challenging. It's a matter of just getting out word about who Haleh is, and moving that word forward and moving it out more broadly.

MARTIN: Haleh, you and your father, who is George Mason University Professor Shaul Bakhash, also a very well recognized scholar in his own right. You've been speaking out to keep your mother's detention in the public eye. Is that experience personally helpful, or do you find it draining to have to keep talking about it?

Ms. BAKHASH: I would say it's neither draining, it's not at all draining. It's so important to us that the world knows what has been happening to my mother. So the more people who know, the more we're able to talk about it, the happier we are. There's been a tremendous outpouring of support for my mother both from her old friends and colleagues, to people who haven't even known her, senators who've issued statements condemning her arrest and asking for her release. Madeleine Albright, yesterday, also issued a statement. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and various academic organizations as well.

MARTIN: We just have about a minute left, but in the time we have left, you mentioned that there was the Senate resolution - all 16 women senators also signed a separate letter asking for Dr. Esfandiari's release. Is there anything else that Americans can do to be helpful here?

Ms. BAKHASH: In addition to signing the petition, contacting the Iranian mission at the United Nations. I hope, in general, that other governments understand the importance - who have relations with Iran - are able to convey how bad this is for their reputation and that they should end this by releasing my mother quickly and sending her home.

MARTIN: Haleh Bakhash is the daughter of Haleh Esfandiari, one of the American scholars currently detained by the Iranian government. And Carla Koppell is the director of the Initiative for Inclusive Security. They both joined me here in our studios. Thank you both so much for coming in and good luck to you.

Ms. BAKHASH: Thank you for having me.

Ms. KOPPELL: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Just ahead: An African-American Catholic priest makes a new home for himself in his faith.

Father REYNALDO TAYLOR (Archdiocese of Cincinnati): There was a sense of isolation. I couldn't even find a barber when I first got to town that was used to cutting African-Americans' hair. I mean, we just didn't exist in the county that I was in in Iowa. I actually had to go Moline, Illinois, many times to get a haircut.

MARTIN: That's coming up next on TELL ME MORE.

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