Jailed Iranian-American Faces 15 Years In Iran Prison

Scholar Kian Tajbakhsh was supposed to teach at Columbia University this fall. But he's been detained in an Iranian prison since the summer, when he was arrested in the aftermath of Iran's presidential elections. In October, Tajbakhsh was sentenced to 15 years in jail. Now friends, family and fellow academics are calling for his release. NPR's Jacki Lyden has this profile.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

We now turn to human rights in Iran, which has been holding thousands of people since the June 12th election, including an Iranian-American, a 47-year-old Columbia University scholar who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for espionage. This week, NPR's Jacki Lyden spoke to people close to him.

JACKI LYDEN: Right now, Kian Tajbakhsh should be wrapping up his first term teaching at Columbia's School for Architecture, Preservation and Planning. He was to begin earlier this year on the eighth of September. Instead, the school's dean, Mark Wigley, spoke out about the imprisoned scholar.

Mr. MARK WIGLEY (Dean, Columbia University): In fact, he was due to start teaching this very day. It is therefore extremely painful to see him arrested and imprisoned.

LYDEN: It would've been a great reunion. Tajbakhsh earned his Ph.D. at Columbia more than 15 years ago, as his mother, Farideh Gueramy, told us on the phone from Tehran.

Ms. FARIDEH GUERAMY: One could say that he became a New Yorker. He would enjoy the culture there. He would enjoy Woody Allen movies and we would talk about all the different diversity, diverse group in New York City.

LYDEN: In 1998, Kian Tajbakhsh returned to Iran for the first time in 20 years. His mother had brought him to the U.S. when he was a four-year-old.

Ms. GUERAMY: My son, most of the time, would criticize me that I brought him out of Iran when he was young, four years old, and I deprived him from his language, his culture. And he always wanted to go back to Iran. He loved Iran, he loved the Persian language and he loved the poetry, he loved Persian music, and he had start actually teaching himself the language.

LYDEN: Kian Tajbakhsh moved back to Iran in October of 2001. He married and had a daughter. What he saw as an era of openness was in fact the beginning of the end of the kind of expanded civil society that Iranians had been enjoying in a reform era. After the 2005 election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, liberty began to vanish. Paranoia crept in.

In 2007, Kian Tajbakhsh was arrested for the first time. At Evin Prison, he discovered he wasnt the only Iranian-American scholar there. Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, was there too.

Ms. ESFANDIARI: They would take us together for interrogation. He usually would walk ahead of me and we were both blindfolded. So when the interrogator would refer to him as Mr. Doctor - (foreign language spoken) - so I knew that Kian was walking ahead of me down the stairs being blindfolded, and I would look down and see his slippers.

LYDEN: After her release, Haleh Esfandiari left Iran and wrote a book, "My Prison, My Home." But Kian Tajbakhsh stayed on, writing about urban planning. Then came the presidential election of June 12th, 2009. It changed everything for Iranians. After the mass protest following the disputed election, thousands were rounded up and sent to prison.

Kian Tajbakhsh was arrested a second time, on July the 9th, and he found himself accused, says Haleh Esfandiari, by a government determined to cast him as a part of a velvet revolution.

Ms. ESFANDIARI: I know that they had convinced themselves that there is a plot through soft means to overthrow the regime. And the moment they saw the Green movement, members of the Green movement in the streets of Tehran, it reminded them of the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, the Rose Revolution in Georgia. And they thought that's it, so therefore we have to once and for all try and stop it.

Little did they know that this was an indigenous movement. When the people came out into the street, all they wanted - they didnt want an overthrow of the regime on June 13th or 14th. They wanted their votes to be counted. And then gradually, you know, it turned into this mass movement which they can't even contain today.

LYDEN: Last summer, Tajbakhsh was put on trial along with a hundred others. He was sentenced in October to 15 years in prison, and in November, he was hit with still more charges. His lawyer, Masoud Shafie, spent an hour and a half with Kian at the prison on Thursday and has seen his file. He says it contains video clips of public demonstrations that Tajbakhsh allegedly emailed. The lawyer says that's certainly not espionage and that the charges against his client are baseless.

Mr. MASOUD SHAFIE (Attorney): (Through translator) I have reviewed the file in detail. I believe from a legal standpoint there's no correlation between the evidence in his file and the conviction and sentencing.

LYDEN: Still, Kian's mother, Farideh Gueramy, says she's optimistic that this will be over soon. Yet another irony: Kian Tajbakhsh is affiliated with Columbia University, the very institution that took so much heat over inviting a controversial guest to speak there in 2007. That was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran.

Now, students and professors are focusing their petitions, speeches and videos on their colleague.

Unidentified Man: I therefore respectfully but passionately urge that Kian Tajbakhsh should be released and returned to his academic community here at Columbia University.

LYDEN: And they have vowed to keep his name before the public.

Jacki Lyden, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: To learn more about these three cases, go to our Web site, NPR.org/soapbox.

Youre listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.