Journalist recounts 100 days as prisoner
“I needed to keep myself sane because I was cut off from the world. No one knew where I was.”
These words — spoken softly by the petite half-Japanese, half-Iranian Roxana Saberi — barely described the terror she felt during 100 days in Evin Prison, one of the most notorious prisons in Iran.
Saberi spoke yesterday in a discussion co-hosted by the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and the USC Center on Public Diplomacy. The journalist discussed her 2009 arrest in Iran while she was on-assignment doing freelance work.
Now working to increase awareness of the injustices facing prisoners of conscience in Iran, Saberi recently released a book called Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran and co-wrote the screenplay for the recently released No One Knows About Persian Cats, the musical-political film that was the subject of Tuesday’s “Sound Check” column.
Saberi, a former Miss North Dakota, was an experienced journalist when she was held hostage in Iran’s Evin Prison, infamous for its collection of political prisoners. She received undergraduate degrees in communication and French as well as graduate degrees in broadcast journalism from Northwestern University and in international relations from Cambridge University. After working for a number of prestigious news organizations, she moved to Iran in 2003 to work as a foreign correspondent for the United States-based Feature Story News, an independent broadcast news agency.
In 2006, Saberi’s press pass was revoked because of a regime change in Iran, but she continued to report for news outlets in the United States while working on a personal project that would eventually land her in jail — a book about marginalized communities in the broader Iranian society.
With the change of leadership in Iran, many female journalists told Saberi that they weren’t sure what was going to happen to their jobs and freedom under the next president. For Saberi, who had previously taken her freedom of speech for granted, this loss would be particularly painful.
“Why did you interview so many people for your book? Who paid you to write your book?” Saberi recalled being asked after her January 2009 arrest. “You have to confess that the book you’re working on is espionage for the U.S.”
As she was the one accustomed to asking all the questions, Saberi said the accusations from men in the interrogation room of Evin Prison gripped her with terror. She was trapped in solitary confinement in a room about six by nine feet without a working toilet or sink.
Although she could not see for herself because she was covered by both a blindfold and a traditional Iranian head-garment, Saberi later learned that the interrogation room was lined with foam so that prisoners who were thrown against the wall would be spared from irreversible skull damage.
Saberi was housed in Section 209 of Evin Prison, a special wing controlled by an intelligence agency separate from the rest of the prison that housed many journalists, bloggers, civil rights activists, women’s rights activists and other political prisoners.
Even in such unnerving surroundings, Saberi retained the basic ideals of freedom and the rights that had been ingrained in her.
“Just give me a polygraph test and you’ll see that I’m innocent!” Saberi told the interrogators on more than one occasion while incarcerated.
She was not, however, allowed to receive a polygraph test, an attorney or the benefit of being considered innocent until proven guilty in Section 209 of Evin Prison. Eventually Saberi relented to pressures from her captors.
“I gave in,” Saberi said. “I said, ‘All right, my book is a cover for espionage for the United States.’”
After an hour-long closed-door trial, Saberi was convicted of spying for the United States in April and was sentenced to eight years in prison.
Immediately following her trial, Saberi went on a hunger strike that lasted two weeks, ending when she fainted from malnutrition.
With her arrest and imprisonment making headlines throughout the Western world, advocacy groups such as Amnesty International and the Society of Professional Journalists pressured the Iranian government for her release.
Less than a month after her trial, an appeals court reduced her sentence, and as abruptly as it began, Saberi’s ordeal was over — she was free to leave the country.
It’s been nearly a year since her 100-day captivity in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison ended and Saberi has turned her experience into an opportunity to help others. While she is glad to be back safely in the United States, she worries about those who wre not as fortunate to be granted release.
“Their only crime was to exercise basic human rights. Why am I free and they are still in prison?” Saberi said.