U.S. Scholar Jailed in Iran

Shaul Bakhash is worried.

His wife has been trapped in Iran for five months. She was arrested and charged with belonging to an organization that was trying to overthrow the current Iranian regime. For the last two weeks Bakhash has not been able to speak with her. And she is being held in the notorious Ward 209 of Evin Prison in Tehran, known for its brutal interrogations.

"They have broken people at Evin before and forced them to make false confessions. My great fear is this is what they have done or continue to do to my wife," Bakhash said. "These charges against her, charges that imply that she was somehow involved in a plan or even a conspiracy to bring about a government revolution in Iran are ridiculous," he added.

Haleh Esfandiari, head of the Middle East Scholars program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., went to Iran, as she often has, to visit her 93-year-old mother in December 2006. On her way to the airport for her return flight to the United States, her car was stopped and she was robbed by three masked, knife-wielding men. The three robbed her of all her possessions, including her Iranian and American passports.

Her husband believes that incident was a scheme to detain her. "I think it is fairly evident now that the robbery was a setup, to seize her passport and prevent her from leaving the country. One really does not know what to think of a government that allows its security people to send knife-wielding men to rob its own citizens," he said.

She was interrogated during a six-week period in January and February for up to eight hours a day. While she was permitted to return home each night where she could communicate with her family back in the United States, 50 hours of these interrogations contained intimidation and threat. She was asked repeatedly to make a false confession that the Woodrow Wilson Center was engaged in activities to help topple the Iranian regime.

On May 8, she was detained and incarcerated in Evin Prison in Tehran where former prisoners have talked about long, intimidating and threatening interrogations. She is allowed to make one daily telephone call to her mother, who lives in Tehran. Her mother tried to visit Esfandiari in prison earlier this month, but wasn't able to talk to her.

Esfandiari's husband is becoming more distressed by the day. "It is very hard for me, really almost unbearable, to think that my wife is in a prison cell, sleeping on a prison mattress and facing interrogators who, to say the least, are not very nice people," he said.

Former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, who now heads the Woodrow Wilson Center, said there is not "a scintilla of truth" to the allegations that his organization or Esfandiari is trying to foment a "soft revolution" in Iran. "Iran is trying to turn a scholar into a spy. Haleh is a scholar. She has never been a spy," he said.

This is not the only example of this kind of abduction. Dr. Kian Tajbakhsh, 45, an American citizen and a consultant for the Open Society Institute, was detained around May 11.

Today State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said that in recent days the United States has requested access to Esfandiari through the Swiss embassy in Tehran, the usual channel of communications between the United States and Iran, as diplomatic ties were severed nearly three decades ago. Iran has yet to respond to the request for access, Casey said.

Meanwhile, Esfandiari's husband waits, worries and hopes for his wife's safe return home.

"I'm not confident at all it's going to be resolved very quickly after all. We didn't believe that she would get into any trouble; she was interrogated for 50 hours. We didn't believe she would be arrested; she has been. We didn't believe for a minute they would make these fantastic accusations against my wife; they have. You get an intelligence service that acts so unjustly, so illogically, anything is possible."

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