Al Jazeera Reporter Reflects on Detainment in Iran
MICHEL MARTIN, host: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
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But first, we are going to continue our conversation with Dorothy Parvaz. She is a reporter for Al Jazeera English. Parvaz went from covering the news to being in the news in April when she was taken into custody by Syrian authorities. She tried to enter the country to cover anti-government protests there.
Before the break, Dorothy, we were talking about your time in Syrian custody. But after three days, Syrian authorities forcibly put you on a plane to Iran. And then you were detained by the Iranian government. You were taken to Evin Detention Center. That's a name many people will have heard by now because that's where many political prisoners are held in Iran. Can you tell us what that experience was like?
DOROTHY PARVAZ: They initially didn't tell me where they were taking me. I repeatedly asked, are you taking me to prison? No. No. We're just taking you somewhere for the night. And, no, don't mind us blindfolding you. And Iranians are funny that way.
So it's really a couple days later when they've taken me to see a physician there. And I lift the clipboard over the form and I saw on top of it, it said (foreign language spoken), Evin Detention Center. And I said, I'm at Evin? They said, yes. But don't worry, it's just a detention center, everything's fine.
So I was in solitary. There were women who worked at a detention center. They took me - escorted me to and from my interrogation sessions.
MARTIN: And what were those like? What were they asking you?
PARVAZ: The Syrians had told the Iranians that I'm a spy. It became clear after a while that I'm not indeed a spy and that I'm indeed a journalist. And then the focus was on my reporting and Al Jazeera's reporting, and reporting in general. And I would have these surreal moments with this guy and I never saw his face. I only saw his shoes and heard his voice.
MARTIN: Because you had a blindfold on?
PARVAZ: Well, they allowed me to lift the blindfold slightly when I was in the room with them. But generally, I was either facing a corner and he was behind me or I was in a room with a two-way mirror or I was in another room that had almost like a voting booth type thing and he was on the other side. But I was absolutely not allowed to look at his face.
MARTIN: Were you in solitary most of the time that you were in Evin?
PARVAZ: No, I was in solitary the whole time. I was not allowed to speak to any of the other inmates. So my days were long. My days were long.
MARTIN: Are you OK, by the way? I feel like you're getting anxious.
PARVAZ: I'm fine. No, I'm fine.
MARTIN: OK. All right. All right. I just want to...
PARVAZ: No, no, no, I'm fine.
MARTIN: We recently talked to the Iranian reporter Maziar Bahari, who has recently written a book about his experience. He was arrested there in Iran for covering the post-election protest in June 2009. And his experience was - obviously he was held for much longer. I just want to play a short clip from the conversation that I had with him. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF PREVIOUS RECORDING)
MAZIAR BAHARI: Because I had an international profile, they did not do so many things that they did to unknown prisoners.
MARTIN: But they beat you every day.
BAHARI: They beat me almost every day. But the worse torture was the solitary confinement itself.
MARTIN: And obviously we had a longer conversation, but his experience in Iran is similar to what you describe was happening in Syria. And obviously, I'm not making you responsible here. You don't speak for these people. But I am wondering why do you think your experiences were so different?
PARVAZ: You know, this is what I meant when I said Iran is an X factor. You just never really know. To be frank, I mean, I was not reporting in Iran. It was a very odd situation, because I hadn't even tried to cover anything in Iran when I found myself detained there. So as to how or why, you just really never know.
MARTIN: When you finally were released, how did that come about?
PARVAZ: Two or three days before, my interrogator said: I'm considering recommending that you be released. And two or three days go by, I don't hear anything. And I'm just, you know, going out of my mind. I'm really stressed out. In the course of the interrogation, there were days where the questioning didn't go so well and there was talk of sending me back to Syria, which would not have been a good thing at all.
But lo and behold, woken up at 3:30 in the morning, told to, you know, hurry up, get up, get dressed. And, yeah, then they took me to the airport and I was put on a Qatar Airways flight to Doha.
MARTIN: Did anyone know you were coming?
PARVAZ: No. Nobody know I was coming. When I called my family, they were incredibly surprised. And, in fact, one question that my father asked was, are you really there or are they just telling you to tell us that? Which, you know, my poor family and my fiance were put through the ringer as well.
But, no, nobody knew. And I had my passport without incident. Went through customs and immigration, as you do, and called my boss and went to my apartment.
MARTIN: All by yourself like you had been, like, in Jamaica, you know, hanging out?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PARVAZ: Oh, listen. I mean, they didn't tell anybody, of course. But it was just an unequal feeling. Unequaled by anything I've ever felt before. Just to not be locked in a room. Just to have agency over my life somewhat.
MARTIN: You wrote in your piece that when you were in Iran that you required sleeping pills because you couldn't get the sound of those young men being beaten out of your head. Well, you know, what about now? How do you think this experience has affected you?
PARVAZ: To be honest, I don't know. All I can say is that you can't unhear certain things once you've heard them. And you can't forget them. And I guess I shouldn't. These people are crying out. Somebody should hear them.
And I don't know if I should forget those sounds. I don't know if I should forget that feeling because at one point when I thought they might kill me when I was blindfolded and handcuffed and lined up against the wall outside for some reason, I remember, like, the worst feeling was, OK, I'm going to die and my family's going to keep looking for me. They're not going to know where I am. And that's terrible, right?
And then I thought about all the people I was hearing being beaten and all the people throughout my stay there, my three days. They're in the same boat. You know, their families just aren't going to know if something happens to them.
MARTIN: You know what I wanted to ask you, Dorothy - I know you're not responsible for, like, speaking for these people. But I'm wondering what the point of it all was.
PARVAZ: I think the point of it is, as far as Syria's concerned, certainly, is to send a message to Al Jazeera and to reporters in general that journalists are not welcome to do their job there. We are not - they don't want us to bear witness to whatever's happening.
The message to their own people is clear too. Don't even think about speaking up. Don't even think about wanting reform. Don't even think about saying anything against this government. Because, you know, we won't think twice about rounding up the most innocent of you and brutalizing you, let alone any of you who have a role in anything.
So, I would just say, I would hope that your listeners and basically anybody consuming media, especially about Syria now realizes that all the stuff that's coming out of Syria, all these reports, these freelancers, be they foreign, be they Syrian, are risking life and limb to get stories out and they should be appreciated and they should be thought of. They shouldn't just be forgotten.
MARTIN: Dorothy Parvaz is a reporter for Al Jazeera English. She's shared her story of being detained after trying to cover the protests in Syria. She's now back at work for Al Jazeera and she was kind enough to join us from their studios in Doha, Qatar.
Dorothy Parvaz, thank you so much for joining us. We're very glad you're back.
PARVAZ: Thank you. And thank you for having me.
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