Roxana Saberi's 100 Days In An Iranian Prison
SCOTT SIMON, host:
Early in Roxana Saberi's 100 days in an Iranian prison, she used the bottom edge of a toothpaste tube to etch a phrase into the heater of her cell.
Roxana, what did you write?
Ms. ROXANA SABERI (Author, "Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran"): I wrote: God save Iran.
SIMON: Why that phrase?
Ms. SABERI: Well, I wanted to add at the end of that phrase: From these people. I meant those kinds of people who had put me in prison that day.
SIMON: Roxana Saberi, of course, joins us from our studios in New York. She's written a memoir of her time in Iran's notorious Evin prison,, where she was held on charges of espionage while an international movement of human rights groups, governments, news organizations - including this one, NPR - and concerned citizens - including many of our listeners - called for her release. Roxana Saberi's book is called "Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran."
Thanks so much for being with us.
Ms. SABERI: Thanks for having me, Scott.
SIMON: And how are you doing?
Ms. SABERI: I'm doing all right. It feels good to have finished the book and have been able to tell some of the stories of my cellmates and also, what happened to me in Evin prison.
SIMON: You were locked up with a group of people you came to admire and love.
Ms. SABERI: Yes. At first I was in solitary confinement for two weeks, and then I was taken out of solitary confinement and put in another cell where there were two women, Mahvash and Fariba - they are two of the seven leaders of the minority Baha'i community. It's thought to be the largest non-Muslim religion in Iran, and they're still in prison today. When I had first met them, I was surprised; I didnt know how people could've survived so long in one, little cell. Mahvash had been in solitary confinement for six months, and I had been going crazy after two weeks.
And Fariba had been in solitary confinement for four months, and they had not seen their lawyers yet. And from them, I learned many lessons of strength. They were pressured to make false confessions about themselves, but they wouldnt agree to do it, even though they probably could've been freed that way.
SIMON: I want to make it plain that in your account, you were not physically tortured...
Ms. SABERI: Right.
SIMON: ...but you were blindfolded and interrogated, and your interrogator said to you, look, we have agents all over the world, we can get to your family and then if you talk about what happened here - your interrogator said, I will personally sign your death warrant. That's not - not just idle talk when they say that to someone in prison who's locked up and blindfolded.
Ms. SABERI: No. And I knew what had happened in Evin prison before. I knew the history; many political prisoners are held there - have been held there. Zahra Kazemi, the Iranian-Canadian journalist, had been detained there in 2003, and she died mysteriously there. I knew there were hangings there. I knew that no one knew where I was. I knew that if they wanted, they could do whatever they want with me and pretend that they had never heard of what happened to me.
SIMON: Why - to put it into a convenient wax ball for people - why did you confess? Why did you recant?
Ms. SABERI: I confessed for a few reasons. One was - and of course, it was a false confession - I was afraid that if I didn't cooperate as they said, that who knew what would happen to me. They told me you could be here for 10 years or 20 years, until you're an old lady.
And I also knew how things worked in Iran. Oftentimes, people are forced to make confessions. And I'd seen on television televised confessions of dual nationals before me, and British sailors who had been detained in 2006.
And after they were released after making these confessions, some of them had recanted their statements. And I thought, I'm just going to do the same thing. I'm going to make this false confession, I'm going to get out of here, and I'm going to recant everything.
And sorry, you asked why I recanted?
SIMON: Yeah. You recanted in prison.
Ms. SABERI: Yes, I did. I couldn't take it anymore. I was - from the moment I made that false confession, I was very ashamed of myself. I was much weaker than I thought I would be if I was ever under pressure. So this feeling, along with meeting other women in prison, my cellmates whom I saw, had not buckled under the same pressures, they inspired me. They didn't tell me what to do. But I decided to recant.
SIMON: I want to ask you a question in your capacity as an expert on Iranian affairs - an expert through hard experience, on Iranian affairs. Reports this week that the Iranian government wants to build more nuclear enrichment sites in the country, in defiance of the U.N. So is this regime reckless, dangerous, impossible to trust?
Ms. SABERI: It's not a very transparent regime, so that we know who's really making decisions, or maybe there are many factions and many players making decisions. But I do believe that we have to keep an avenue for negotiations open. But human rights always, I believe, has to be a first-tier issue along with the nuclear issue.
Like one of my cellmates, Mafash(ph), told me: Roxana, when you go back to America, please tell others that our country is not only about the nuclear issue. It's also about people like us.
SIMON: You're back home in Fargo.
Ms. SABERI: Yes.
SIMON: For the moment. I have to ask - so in the middle of the night or the middle of the day, do you ever think about that interrogator that said to you, we have people all over the world; we can find your family?
Ms. SABERI: Usually at night, sometimes in my dreams - especially the past two nights. I don't know why. And I hope my dreams mean nothing. You know, I don't hate those people. Although I hate what they did to me, it doesn't mean I hate them.
And when I speak out like this about what happened to me and the violations of human rights of my cellmates, and so many people today who are still there, it's with the hope that they'll change their behaviors, maybe that I can add to other voices pushing for change there.
SIMON: Roxana, thank you so much.
Ms. SABERI: Thank you for having me, Scott.
SIMON: Roxana Saberi. Her new book, "Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran."