Husband of Scholar Held in Iran Seeks Her Release
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
Colleagues of an American are demanding her release from an Iranian prison.
Mr. LEE HAMILTON (Director, Woodrow Wilson Center): Iran is trying to turn a scholar into a spy. Haleh is a scholar. She has never been a spy.
INSKEEP: That's former Congressman Lee Hamilton, head of the Woodrow Wilson Center, a think-tank where Haleh Esfandiari works. She's a native of Iran. She was visiting there when she was detained on suspicion of seeking to overthrow Iran's government.
This morning, we've called Shaul Bakhash. He is a professor of history at George Mason University, and he is Haleh Esfandiari's husband. Welcome to the program, sir.
Professor SHAUL BAKHASH (History, George Mason University): Good morning.
INSKEEP: Can you tell us when was the last time that you were able to speak with your wife?
Prof. BAKHASH: I think it must have been just before she was taken to Evin Prison on May 8th. So the last time I spoke to her or exchanged an email with her was probably May 7th.
INSKEEP: And that was the period where she wasn't in prison yet, but she already had been prevented from leaving the country and knew there was trouble.
Prof. BAKHASH: Indeed, she'd been threatened from leaving the country for four months and had been grilled by interrogators for over 50 hours.
INSKEEP: Was she worried then?
Prof. BAKHASH: She was always worried, because this intelligence ministry is opaque and already in the interrogation they had been intimidating and issued threats.
INSKEEP: How do you get news of her condition now?
Prof. BAKHASH: We have no news of her condition. She is able to telephone her mother most though not all nights. But the amount of time allowed for these telephone calls is usually a minute. Two minutes would be on the very high side.
INSKEEP: So she's simply able to say that she's here, that she's alive.
Prof. BAKHASH: And she says, I'm okay, asks about her grandchildren, but that's really about it. Her lawyers have not been permitted access to her.
INSKEEP: When the government makes statements as it did this week, that it's going to charge her with attempting to overthrow the government, what does that make you think about the possibility for her eventual release?
Prof. BAKHASH: These are very frightening charges. They are totally without foundation. The Iranian government is basically criminalizing all scholarly activity, and it does cause us great concern that they're intending to take her to trial.
INSKEEP: You think this is part of a larger effort to go after into intellectuals?
Prof. BAKHASH: Well, there's certainly been a larger crackdown on scholarly and academic activity in Iran in recent months. So, yes, that must be part of it.
INSKEEP: I'd like to play a little bit of tape of your wife, if I might. She spoke to NPR in 1997 about Iran, and she was rather optimistic then.
(Soundbite of previous NPR broadcast)
Ms. HALEH ESFANDIARI (Director, Middle East Program, Woodrow Wilson Center International Center): The clerical leadership is very sensitive to predicting a progressive image of women's role in an Islamic society. They look at themselves as a role model for other Islamic country, and therefore they would like to show that their women are participating in all aspects of life.
INSKEEP: She was optimistic then. Has the country changed since 1997?
Prof. BAKHASH: Well, I think since the presidency of Ahmadinejad in the last couple of years it appears that the security services have gained a great deal more clout in policy-making. And I think there is a danger for Iran that they will create for themselves, as they have over the last few weeks, a very poor reputation in the international community. I mean, look at all the, at first, publicity they have received as a result of the arrest and incarceration of Haleh.
INSKEEP: And just very, very briefly, what do you do each day to try to keep this on people's minds?
Prof. BAKHASH: Well, we've had a great outpouring of international support for which we are very grateful. And I've been doing interviews, consulting with her colleagues at the Woodrow Wilson Center as to how best to deal with this crisis and speaking to our lawyers. We do hope that this international focus will remain. It might move the Iran government to finally release her and allow her to come home.
INSKEEP: Mr. Bakhash, thanks very much.
Prof. BAKHASH: Thank you.
INSKEEP: Shaul Bakhash is the husband of Haleh Esfandiari, an American who remains in prison in Iran. And you can hear the full interview from 1997 with Haleh Esfandiari at npr.org.
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