Iran: UPDATE: Iranian-American academic Haleh Esfandiari released on bail

Detained Iranian-American academic Dr. Haleh Esfandiari was suddenly released from a notorious Tehran prison Tuesday after spending months behind bars on charges of endangering Iranian national security — allegations her family vehemently denies. However it remains unclear if Haleh Esfandiari, 67, will be allowed to leave the country.
Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, had been jailed in Tehran's Evin prison since early May after enduring months of intense interrogations. She was released after her elderly mother used the deed to her Tehran apartment to post bail, family said.

"I'm very happy. It was unexpected. I thank all those who made efforts to make it possible for me to go home," Esfandiari told Iranian television. The footage showed her walking out of the prison and meeting family members in a car on a nearby street.

Mohammad Shadabi, an official at the Tehran prosecutor's office, said Esfandiari had been released on 3 billion rials bail (about US$333,000), but he could not say whether she would be allowed to leave Iran.

Esfandiari's daughter, Haleh Bakhash, said she believed the terms of Esfandiari's release prevent her from leaving the country, but she was not under house arrest or any form of detention. She said she spoke to her mother briefly by telephone after her release.

Former U.S. Representative Lee Hamilton, who heads the Wilson Center, said he was unsure what prompted Esfandiari's release but added he had recently received a written response from Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei after sending him a letter appealing for her freedom. "I cannot speak to that (why she was released) with certainty, because I do not know what goes on inside the Iranian government. I think an important factor was my letter to the supreme leader a few weeks ago," Hamilton told reporters by phone. He said the two-paragraph response, written in English, was unsigned and didn't mention Esfandiari by name. But the response indicated that Khamenei, who has the ultimate authority in Iran, had given instructions to deal with the issue, he said. Hamilton also said he recently met with Iran's U.N. representative, who told him Esfandiari's release was imminent.

Esfandiari was detained Dec. 30 after three masked men holding knives threatened to kill her on her way to Tehran's airport to fly back to the U.S., the Wilson Center has said. The men took her U.S. and Iranian passports, making her unable to leave the country, the center said. For several weeks, she was interrogated by authorities for up to eight hours a day about the activities of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, the Washington-based foundation said. Iran confirmed in mid-May that it was detaining Esfandiari and charged her later that month. Since then, her only contact with her family has been short phone calls to her mother in which she indicated she was under immense stress and was having trouble receiving medication for her health conditions, Hamilton said.

Iran also has charged three other Iranian-Americans for security-related offenses: Parnaz Azima, a journalist for U.S.-funded Radio Farda; Kian Tajbakhsh, an urban planning consultant with the Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute; and Ali Shakeri, a founding board member of the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at the University of California, Irvine. Shakeri and Tajbakhsh are in prison; Azima is free but barred from leaving Iran.

The detentions have become another point of contention between the U.S. and Iran. Washington also accuses Iran of arming Shiite Muslim militants in Iraq and seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran denies those claims, and blames Washington for Iraq's instability.

The Iranian Intelligence Ministry had accused Esfandiari and her organization of trying to set up networks of Iranians with the ultimate goal of creating a "soft revolution" in Iran, along the lines of the revolutions that ended communist rule in eastern Europe. Esfandiari's husband, Shaul Bakhash, and the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan institution established by Congress in 1968, deny the allegations.

Earlier this month, Iranian authorities said they concluded their investigations into Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh. Both had appeared in a video broadcast on Iranian public television in July in which Esfandiari said a network of foreign activists was trying to destabilize Iran and bring about "essential" social change.

Both the Wilson Center and the New York-based Open Society Institute have criticized the Iranian government for the broadcast and dismissed the statements as "coerced."

Esfandiari told Iranian state-run TV after her release that her jailers were polite, and she had recently been allowed to read newspapers and watch television. "Their treatment was remarkably good. I had a big room. It was a bright room with window. They had made it possible for me to go out for a walk," she said.

Hamilton said he did not believe the charges against her had been dismissed. He also said there were "many interlocutors — official and nonofficial — on Haleh's behalf," but he did not identify them, though he added that as far as he knew the Bush administration didn't play a direct role in contacting the Iranians about Esfandiari.

At the couple's home in Potomac, Maryland, Bakhash said he hopes his wife's release means she will be allowed to return to the United States. "I feel extremely good. It has been a very anxious several months," he said. Her daughter, Haleh Bakhash, who lives in Washington, said Esfandiari was happy to be at her mother's home and hear her daughter's voice. "I am guardedly optimistic that within a couple of weeks she will be able to join us," she said.


On May 8, security forces took Dr. Haleh Esfiandiari to Evin Prison, though she had not been formally charged with any crime. Evin Prison is notorious for its harsh treatment of political prisoners. In 2003, Iranian-Canadian photo-journalist Zahra Kazemi was killed during her interrogation in the prison.

On 12th May 2007, the state-controlled newspaper Kayhan accused her of spying for the US and Israel and of trying to incite a democratic revolution in the country.

On 29th May 2007, Mr. Ali Reza Jamshidi, Iran’s judiciary spokesman, said that Dr. Haleh Esfandiari was “formally charged” with “endangering national security” through propaganda against the system and “espionage for foreigners”. Under Iran’s law, the charge could carry the death sentence.

Mr. Jamshidi further stated that the same charges had also been lodged against two other Iranian-Americans, Mr. Kian Tajbakhsh, an urban planning consultant, and journalist Ms. Parnaz Azima. No trial date was announced and Mr. Jamshidi said the Intelligence Ministry was still investigating their cases. Mr. Kian Tajbakhsh, an Iranian-American social scientist as well as a consultant working for the New York-based Open Society Institute, was arrested at his home in Tehran by agents of the Ministry of Information and brought to section 209 of Evin prison around 11th May 2007. He seems to have been detained in incommunicado detention without access to legal counsel. According to the Institute, Mr. Tajbakhsh had been helping “to facilitate public health, humanitarian assistance and urban planning projects that [they] undertook openly and with the knowledge of the Iranian government”.

Ms. Parnaz Azima, a reporter for the U.S.-funded Radio Farda, the Persian-language service run jointly by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and Voice of America, has been prohibited from leaving Iran since her passport was seized in January 2007. At the time of writing, she was not imprisoned but was unable to leave the country.

Finally, another dual citizen, Mr. Ali Shakeri, was also believed to have been banned from leaving Iran.

International Herald Tribune