Roxana Saberi Released From Iranian Prison 'With My Head Held High'

Roxana Saberi talks to Diane Sawyer Friday on "Good Morning America."

May 27, 2009, 2:00 PM

May 28, 2009— -- From playing piano on the prison walls to repeating the "Star Spangled Banner" to keep her spirits up, former Iranian prisoner Roxana Saberi said she got through her nearly three months of confinement by praying to a God she once thought had given up on her.

"I learned many lessons, I learned that, do not fear those who can hurt your body but not your soul. No one can hurt your soul unless you let them," Saberi told ABC News' Diane Sawyer in an interview airing Friday on "Good Morning America." "I also learned that, do what you think is right even if you suffer for it, in the end you will be victorious."

Grateful for her freedom and the international push that helped her get home, Saberi said she left Iran with a heavy conscience knowing all the other women would stay behind -- some for months or years -- with the public never knowing their names.

Housed in solitary confinement for her first two weeks in Evin, Saberi was eventually housed with other women, some who were imprisoned for crimes like speaking out in favor of what many consider to be basic human rights.

"When I was moved into the cells with some of the other women, I saw their strength and they were role models to me and I learned from them," she said. "They inspired me. At one point I told myself, I'm not going to cry anymore until the day I become free, and then I want to cry tears of joy. So I, indeed, made it until I became free, fortunately with the international support that I had."

Saberi, an Iranian-American journalist who had been living in Iran since 2003, was arrested on Jan. 31 while working as a freelance journalist and researching a book on Iran. She was working without press credentials, which were revoked in 2006, and was accused of everything from keeping wine in her home to being a spy.

She was sentenced to eight years in Tehran's Evin prison, a term that was replaced with a two-year suspended sentence after a major international push from the U.S. government, international human rights organizations and media from across the globe.

"I felt that God had abandoned me," Saberi said. "I felt that maybe I did something wrong in my life and I deserved this punishment. I was very afraid and so I gave in to their pressures during those first two weeks."

Saberi, who turned 32 in prison, said that while she was never physically tortured, she was subjected to hours-long interrogation sessions, during which she was blindfolded and bombarded with questions by a group of men who promised her freedom if she confessed to being a spy.

"Since they were making these threats to me -- that I would have to remain in jail if I did not make this confession -- and because nobody knew where I was, I confessed to being a U.S. spy," she said. "I thought I had to do this to be free, but my conscience got the better of me."

What she did next, Saberi said, may have contributed to her eight-year sentence.

"I felt that the God that I had felt before had abandoned me was still with me, but he wasn't pleased with me and so I recanted my confession, knowing full well that it would mean I wouldn't be free," she said. "And indeed the prosecutor was quite angry with me and he sent my case to trial."

Despite the anguish that followed, Saberi said she's glad she stuck by her decision.

"The main thing for me was that whenever I do come out of prison, whether it be tomorrow or eight years from now, that I come out with my head held high," she said, "because I don't want to be freed upon a lie. I want to tell the truth even if it means I have to stay in prison."

Roxana Saberi Thanks Hillary Clinton

After returning to U.S. soil last Friday, Saberi has made several stops in Washington, D.C., to thank her supporters, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She said she's ready to get back to North Dakota and write the book she began in Iran.

Saberi, born in New Jersey to an Iranian father and a Japanese mother, said she's still proud of her Iranian heritage, just as she is to be American and Japanese. She said she's hoping that relations between Iran and the U.S. will eventually warm enough for a better understanding between the two wildly different governments.

"Within the regime I believe there are some very influential elements who would like better relations with the United States, and the U.S. should try to reach out -- genuinely try to reach out and sincerely try to reach out -- to those elements."

Though already tense, U.S.-Iranian relations have shown potential for improvement since President Obama took office and indicated his administration's openness to a new approach toward Iran.

Earlier this year, Obama reached out to the Iranian people and the country's leaders, sending them a videotaped message for the holiday of Nowruz.

But the U.S. continues to tangle with outspoken Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

During Saberi's imprisonment, Ahmadinejad told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos that he could not commit to work for her release, saying, "I am not a judge. And I do not pass judgment over judicial cases. In Iran the judiciary is independent. Our judiciary is not a political apparatus. It passes judgment in accordance with the law."

Ahmadinejad eventually sent a letter to the appeals court, and Saberi's sentence was reduced shortly thereafter.

A Long Line of Prisoners at Evin

Though Saberi has put a current face on the prisoners at Evin, there have been dozens of women to come and go before her, and many more that will likely come after.

In a case that bears many similarities to Saberi's, Silva Harotonian, an Iranian aid worker of Armenian descent, remains imprisoned at Elvin, also accused of espionage. Harotonian was employed by the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX), which works to improve child and maternal health, when she was arrested in June 2008.

She was sentenced in January to three years in prison, according to the Inter Press Service, which quoted her Tehran-based lawyer as saying she lost 24 pounds in one month alone while behind bars.

"Harotonian is completely innocent and has not committed any crime," human rights lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani told the Inter Press Service. "Though she has not been physically hurt, she has had to endure a lot of psychological hardship."

In 2007, Iranian journalist Maryam Hosseinkhah wrote about her imprisonment in Evin because of her writings in support of women's rights. Published on for Change for Equality, Hosseinkhah described visiting the prison first as a journalist and being told by the prisoners of the good conditions, only to be slipped a note that read "Help us! No one thinks about us here."

A short time later, Hosseinkhah was a prisoner herself. An active member of the Campaign for Equality, her bail was set at an impossible $100,000. She wrote about meeting a woman named Leila who had been imprisoned for two years after a beating by her husband, who was also arrested. But while he made bail and went back to a new wife and children, Leila sat in Evin because, as the mother of a child with Down Syndrome, she dared ask for her nafagheh -- the money a man is required to pay for the expenses of his wife and children.

Hosseinkhah's bail was eventually reduced to nearly $5,500 and she was released in January 2008.

In December 2006, Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Middle East Program, was imprisoned for 105 days after becoming trapped in Tehran without her passport following a robbery. With authorities suspicious about her involvement with the program, Esfandiari was accused of attempting to overturn the Iranian government.

She was released in August 2007 after her mother put up her apartment in Iran to make bail. Esfandiari told Wilson's Quarterly that she exercised and composed a book about her grandmother in her head while in solitary confinement for more than 100 days.

Esfandiari, who was 67 during her stay at Elvin, described a cell with a fluorescent light left on 24 hours a day and interrogations about her position with the Woodrow Wilson Center.

"They never threatened me with physical abuse," Esfandiari told the publication, adding that she believes she got fairly humane treatment because of her age. "The way they would threaten me is to say, 'We are not satisfied with your answers, so your situation is going to worsen.'"

"Torture goes on in Iranian prisons," she added. "I was very lucky that I was neither harassed physically nor tortured."

Going Inside Evin Prison

A 2006 BBC report from inside the Evin prison described reporters only being shown newer sections of the jail, with prison officials boasting of good food, a new hospital and even a midwife. But the reporters said they were denied access to several prisoners, including French and German nationals.

It was, they reported, a far cry from the accounts given by released political prisoners who complained of torture and basic human rights violations.

The 2007 book "My Life as a Traitor" describes the beatings and torture suffered by 20-year-old Iranian Zarah Ghahramani who spent 29 days at Evin in 2001 for participating in student protests against the government.

In an interview with Marie Claire magazine, Ghahramani said she was arrested when a car pulled up next to her and a woman demanded she get inside. Once in the interrogation room, "they hit me, punched me. I had broken ribs. My entire body was bruised. I had bruises all over my face and a big cut on my chin from being hit there," she told Marie Claire.

"One time, I got hit with something -- I still don't know what it was -- on my shoulder and arm," she said. "My whole body was in pain, and I would faint and wake up hours later not knowing where I was or what had happened."

Ghahramani said she fled to Australia once she was released and she feared being brought back by the Iranian government.

"When I came out, when I saw my mother's face, and I saw my dad crying for the first time ever," she told Marie Claire, "I realized how selfish I was."

ABC News' Theresa Cook and ABC News Research Center's Candace Stuart and Barbara Paulson contributed to this story.

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