More than four months after California graduate student Esha Momeni was arrested in Iran as she worked on her master's thesis, she is still forbidden from leaving the country and now won't be eligible to graduate with her classmates this spring, people close to her tell ABCNews.com. And, they say, the story from the Iranian government isn't adding up.
"Her telephone conversations are being monitored, her other communications are being monitored," Momeni's fiance, Hassan Hussain, told ABCNews.com. "In addition to that, we don't know what else [officials] might be doing."
Momeni, 28, who holds both American and Iranian citizenship and who studies at California State University, Northridge, was filming interviews with women's right advocates in Tehran on Oct. 15 when the trouble began.
She was pulled over for an alleged traffic violation, according to reports. Once her video footage and computer were confiscated by authorities, she was then charged with acting against national security and propagating against the system, her father told the Los Angeles Times.
The videos were of interviews with advocates from the One Million Signatures campaign, which is fighting for the abolition of gender discrimination in Iranian law by attempting to collect one million signatures of Iranian citizens to be given to parliament.
Some of the laws the group seeks to change are equal rights for women in marriage and to divorce, an end to polygamy and temporary marriage, the right for women to pass on nationality to their children, equal compensation for bodily injury or death between women and men, equal inheritance rights, as well as the reform of laws that reduce punishment for offenders in cases of honor killings, according to the group's website.
After her arrest, Momeni was taken to Evin Prison, where she was kept in solitary confinement and interrogated often, according to her friends and to the Change for Equality activist group. The group said she was released on Nov. 10 once her bail was secured. Momeni's father, Reza Momeni, told the Los Angeles Times that he put up the deed to his family's apartment so that he could pay his daughter's $200,000 bail.
Friends Say Esha's Passport Was Never Returned
Momeni is now living with her family in Tehran, who moved back to Iran after her father studied in California in the 70s. She studied graphic design in Tehran but returned to California in 2006 to pursue her graduate studies.
Iranian officials said late last year that Momeni was free to return to the U.S., but her friends and family maintain that was never possible because the government would not return her passport. Then, on Jan. 13, a spokesperson for the Iranian judiciary, Ali Reza Jamshidi, told reporters that Momeni had been officially banned from leaving the country, according to the AFP.
The head of the Iranian Judiciary, Mahmoud Shahroudi, as well as the Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khamenei, did not return requests for comment on the status of Momeni's case. The Iranian Ambassador to the U.N., Mohammad Khazaee, did not return requests for comment. Her attorney, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, could not be reached.
One Million Signatures Campaign
Momeni's friends say her arrest and the confiscation of her research materials don't make sense because she wasn't attempting to make a political statement and was not filming in public without consent, which is against Iranian law. Instead, they say, Momeni was filming intimate interviews in volunteers' homes in her quest to show Americans how stereotypes of Iranian women as weak or helpless are wrong.
"The project was more about showing the strength and courage of Iranian women," Hussain said.
"She was trying to bridge these two cultures that have not understood each other for a long time," said Momeni's thesis advisor, Professor Melissa Wall.
And Roja Bandari, a volunteer with the One Million Signatures campaign in California, said the Iranian women who are working on the project in Iran should be considered a source of pride to the country instead of a threat against it.
"They aren't doing anything covert or working to topple the Iranian government," Bandari said, adding that the grassroots movement does not contradict Iranian law.
Obama and Hope for Esha
At the beginning of her ordeal, Momeni was angry and frustrated that she couldn't go on with her life, her fiance told ABCNews.com. But, "at this point, she's sort of given up hope, but only in order to allow herself to maintain her self-dignity," Hussain said.
"She has to imagine that she is going to be there forever mentally," Hussain added, "because each day she can't wonder if she might be released tomorrow." He said Momeni fills her time by working on art projects.
Now, he and her other supporters are hopeful that the possibility of the Obama administration opening communication with Iran will create an "enticement for the regime to release her" because "[Iran] can not ask for dialogue and continue to detain people who have done nothing wrong like this," Hussain said.
Iran also has elections coming up in the summer, Hussain added, so "hopefully with the change of administration, there might also be a change of policy towards people like Esha."
Momeni's thesis advisor, Professor Wall, said that students and faculty had hoped that Momeni would be allowed to return to California over the last few weeks so that she could start a new final project and graduate with her classmates. But now, Wall said, it's going to be too late.
"It's pretty devastating for some of them," Wall said of Momeni's colleagues at the small school and in the intimate communications program. "The realization that she's not going to be graduating with them is painful."
Momeni's fiance says that hope is not lost on Momeni being allowed to return soon, but those close to her acknowledge that each passing day without her breeds disappointment and frustration.
"It's just been heartbreaking," Wall said. "This vibrant young woman in this horrible situation."
Women's Rights Advocates and Activists in Iran
Momeni's case is not isolated in Iran. On Jan. 30, three women's rights advocates were arrested in Tehran, one of whom remains in detention, according to Iran Human Rights Voice, an online group that monitors human rights violations in Iran. The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reported that another activist, Alieh Eghdamdoust, was arrested on Jan. 31 to begin serving a three-year sentence for participating in a 2006 protest in Haft Tir, Square, Tehran.
U.N. human rights investigators recently urged Iran to stop a "crackdown" on women's rights activists in what they described as a "serious repression."
"Over the past two years, women's rights defenders have faced an increasingly difficult situation and harassment in the course of their non-violent activities," said a statement by Margaret Sekaggya, U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, and Yakin Erturk, special rapporteur on violence against women.
Iran has previously said that women in the country do not face discrimination.