MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
It happens from time to time. Journalists whose job it is to tell stories suddenly becomes the story themselves. That's what happened to Iranian-American reporter Roxana Saberi. She was working in Iran as a freelance journalist filing reports for NPR and other news organizations. In January she was arrested, jailed in Tehran. Later charged with espionage and sentenced to eight years in prison. On May 11th an appeals court suspended her sentence and she was freed. In her first interview since her release Roxana Saberi told me about the ordeal.
Ms. ROXANA SABERI (Journalist): I was in my home on Jan 31st, when, at 9 o'clock in the morning, four men from the Intelligence Ministry came to my home. They confiscated my computers and a number of my documents and books. And then they took me to another building for interrogation. I was told that if I don't cooperate, if I don't confess to being a spy, that I would be taken to Evin that evening. And because they did not want to make a false confession and say that I was a spy, they took me to Evin prison.
BLOCK: And it was how long before you were able to call your parents in North Dakota?
Ms. SABERI: I was allowed to call my parents about 11 days later, after I told my interrogators please let me call my father, at least, to let him know that I'm alive. And they forced me to tell him a lie — to tell him that I didn't know where I was and that I had been arrested for alcohol, but these were not true.
BLOCK: For buying a bottle of wine, is what you told him.
Ms. SABERI: Yes. And this is where the rumor began.
BLOCK: And you knew, then, from the very beginning, based on what they had told you, what they confiscated, that you were facing very serious charges of espionage here.
Ms. SABERI: Until this day, I'm still not sure what they arrested me for. It wasn't for buying alcohol. It wasn't for reporting without a press pass. My interrogators claimed that I was spying for the U.S., and however much I told them that I was not, that I was simply writing a book and doing interviews for a book, which I hoped to use to show English speakers around the world a more balanced and complete picture of the Iranian society — however much I told them this, they told me I was lying and that I was a U.S. spy. So my first — the first charge that was against me was taking steps against national security, which can mean various things in Iran.
BLOCK: I interviewed your father back in April, while you were still in prison, and he told me that you had made statements under pressure — under threat — while you were being held in Evin prison. Was that the case, and if that was the case, what did you confess to under duress?
Ms. SABERI: That was the case. And one of the ways that people get out of these kinds of situations is to make a confession, and even be videotaped making this confession, even if this confession is false. And so, under pressure, I did the same thing. After I realized that nobody knew where I was, I was very afraid. And my interrogators threatened me and said if you don't confess to being a U.S. spy, you could be here for many years — 10 years or 20 years, or you could even face execution.
And I thought, well, if something happens to me, my family doesn't know where I am, maybe they would never find out. And so I made a false confession and I said yes, I'm a U.S. spy. But because my conscience got the better of me and the God that I believe in — the God that I thought had abandoned me when I was first in prison — I realized was always with me. And I realized that he was not pleased with what I had done by making this false confession. I recanted my confession, knowing full well that I would jeopardize my freedom.
And indeed, that's what happened. The prosecutor got upset with me for recanting my confession and sent my case to trial instead of freeing me. And that's when I was sentenced to eight years in prison. I knew this was going to happen when I recanted my confession, but I told myself, I would rather tell the truth and stay in prison instead of telling lies to be free.
BLOCK: Let me take you back just a bit to those interrogations in Evin prison. Can you describe what that was like? Was there any physical threat? Was it purely psychological threat?
Ms. SABERI: I was under severe psychological and mental pressure, although I was not physically tortured. The first few days, I was interrogated for several hours, from morning until evening, blindfolded, facing a wall, by up to four men, and threatened, as I said, that I would be put in prison for 10 to 20 years or more or even face execution. And I was in solitary confinement for several days.
BLOCK: Roxana, there has been a lot of confusion, maybe some misinformation, about what evidence was used against you and maybe we can try to clear some of that up.
Ms. SABERI: Mm-hmm.
BLOCK: One of your defense attorney's, Saleh Nikbakht, said after your release that part of the evidence against you was that you had a document about the U.S. invasion of Iraq that you had copied while you were working as a translator for a powerful council within Iran's clerical government. How did you get this document? What was that about?
Ms. SABERI: Well, I have to clarify a number of things that you just said. The Iranian government claimed that I had a classified document. But I don't think it was classified. This is Iran and it's not a very transparent system. And some things that some authorities say are not always true. The document did not have a classified stamp on it, which I've heard such documents are supposed to have. It was an old document from 2002 and it didn't contain any information that had not been stated publicly several times before. They also didn't even know about it at the time of my arrest. They didn't know about it until I brought it to their attention.
BLOCK: You brought it to their attention?
Ms. SABERI: Yes, because they pressured me to confess that I had classified documents and I didn't have any, but I started describing the documents that I did have. And so, later, they brought me to my home and I gave them the ones they didn't already have. But when I gave them this one, I looked at it and I said, see there's no classified stamp on it. It's not classified.
BLOCK: Why did you have this document in the first place? How did you come to have that in your house?
Ms. SABERI: I was editing English grammar of a few academic articles for publication on the Web site of the Center for Strategic Research, which is a governmental think tank. So I copied that document.
BLOCK: Was it a document you were translating?
Ms. SABERI: No, it wasn't.
BLOCK: So what it was about that made you want to have that?
Ms. SABERI: You know, I'm a naturally curious person. And in the hindsight, I shouldn't have copied it, but it wasn't classified as far as I could tell. I wanted it for historical perspective because I knew it was an old document.
BLOCK: This defense attorney had described your work as being for a clerical council that advises Iran's supreme religious leader. Was that also work you were doing, separate from the work you're describing with the think tank?
Ms. SABERI: He said that I was translating articles?
BLOCK: He said you were working, I believe, as a translator for the Expediency Council.
Ms. SABERI: No, that's incorrect.
BLOCK: Did you do any work for any…
Ms. SABERI: Expediency Council? No.
BLOCK: …for any council that advised the Iranian government?
Ms. SABERI: No. I was just editing the English grammar of a few of these academic articles for publication for the Web site of the Center for Strategic Research, which is a governmental think tank.
BLOCK: Huh, huh.
Ms. SABERI: Some of the research that this think tank does goes to the Expediency Council. But I was working on those articles that were to be publicized on their Web site or for journals in the West.
BLOCK: There's another thing that we should clear up here. And that's a statement made from the same defense attorney, Mr. Nikbakht. He disclosed an allegation that you had met with someone who he said was named Mr. Peterson who worked for the CIA. And according to your defense attorney, this man tried to recruit you. Did you have any conversations with anyone who claimed to be working for the CIA and who may have tried to recruit you?
Ms. SABERI: No, I never did.
BLOCK: So where is that coming from?
Ms. SABERI: A lot of the things he has said since my release have been either incomplete or untrue. I don't know why it is — maybe they believe whatever the court has told them or maybe it's because they live and work in Iran and they have to be careful of their relations with the authorities. In Iran, there have been attorneys who have been jailed for representing clients with sensitive cases such as mine. He may have been referring to the false confession I made but my confession was false and I thought I had to fabricate it to save myself.
BLOCK: So the name, I mean, there's a fair amount of specificity in what he is saying here, this name, Mr. Peterson, invented out of whole cloth? Was this part of the government evidence and you're now saying it's absolutely not true?
Ms. SABERI: I don't really want to say any more about this person because it was completely false and I recanted it before my first trial.
BLOCK: You were in captivity, held in Iran for 100 days. Tell me about those days in Evin prison. What filled your time, what you thought about, what kept you going?
Ms. SABERI: Well, when I was in solitary confinement, it was probably the most difficult time for me. I prayed a lot. I prayed more than I ever have in my whole life. At first, I used to worry a lot about my parents not knowing where I was. At first, I just felt very afraid. But then I realized that I needed to turn this challenge into an opportunity. And may be this challenge can make me stronger, mentally and spiritually. I learned a lot from the other political prisoners there, too.
Because after several weeks, I was put into a cell with them. Many of those women were there because they were standing up for human rights or the freedom of belief or expression. Many of them are still there today. They don't enjoy the same kind of international support that I did. And they're not willing to give in to pressures to make false confessions or to sign off to commitments not to take part in their activities once they're released. They would rather stay in prison and stand up for those principles that they believe in.
BLOCK: What were those conversations like?
Ms. SABERI: They gave me a lot of inspiration. I shared a cell with Silva Harotonian, who is a researcher of health issues, and she's been sentenced to three years in prison. I also shared a cell with university students, Baha'is — a wide range of women.
BLOCK: Roxana, you've lived in Iran for some years. How do you read your release on the suspended sentence? Do you see this as some sort of power play between the hardliners in Iran and reformists?
Ms. SABERI: You know, it's difficult for me to speculate because I don't know. I can guess, perhaps, that if the hardliners had their way, I would still be in prison today. But the people who you could may be call more pragmatists, they seemed to reach the conclusion that it was more costly to keep me amid all this international pressure instead of to release me.
BLOCK: You're heading home now to North Dakota?
Ms. SABERI: Yes.
BLOCK: Can you imagine going back to Iran?
Ms. SABERI: You know, I'm proud to be an American, I'm proud to be a Japanese, and I'm proud to be an Iranian. I went to Iran because I wanted to learn more about my father's native country and to learn the language. And I learned to love the country. And definitely, I hope to go back someday.
BLOCK: Roxana Saberi, thanks so much for coming in.
Ms. SABERI: Thanks for having me.
BLOCK: That's freelance reporter Roxana Saberi, back in the U.S., after being imprisoned in Iran for 100 days on charges of espionage.
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BLOCK: You can hear my full 25-minute interview with her at our Web site npr.org.
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