Roxana Saberi, Imprisoned in Iran, Says She Sees Possibility for Better Relations

Roxana Saberi said she prayed, recited national anthem while in Iranian prison.

May 27, 2009, 2:00 PM

May 29, 2009— -- Free from the Iranian prison where she slept for months on a blanket-covered floor, Roxana Saberi said she feels both grateful and guilty to be home when there are so many others she left behind.

"I felt contradictory feelings, because on the one hand, of course I was very happy to come out and to be with my family and friends," Saberi told Diane Sawyer today on "Good Morning America." But on the other hand, I felt very sorry about those women who had to stay behind."

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.

Originally sentenced to eight years in prison, she credited her May 11 release from Tehran's Evin Prison in large part to the outpouring of international support, both political and public.

"I'm very grateful for that, but some of these women are not even known to the outside world. There's not the same kind of international support for them," she said. "What they're trying to do is stand up, for example, for freedom of speech or belief and religion -- for basic human rights."

"I have to say that they were some of the strongest and most admirable people that I have ever met," she said, "not only in Iran, but in my whole life."

While other women to leave Evin have spoken of beatings and torture, Saberi said she was never physically abused, though she spent hours upon hours each day being interrogated.

"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 was raised in North Dakota and once competed in the Miss America pageant, said she was put in a chair facing the wall and blindfolded before being bombarded with questions from men seeking a confession that she was, in fact, a spy. It was, she said, "severe" psychological pressure.

She eventually caved to the accusations after being promised it would win her freedom.

"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."

And yet when she heard her sentence -- that she'd have to spend the next eight years at Evin -- Saberi said it was somewhat of a relief.

"I thanked God because I knew that if I had been sentenced to only one or two years in prison, that there wouldn't be as much of an international outcry," she said. "Eight years, to me, seemed ridiculous and it also proved to me that if I had not recanted my confession, I would have gone free."

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."

She described her days there, including the first two weeks in solitary confinement, as being filled by recitation of the "Star Spangled Banner," pretend piano concerts on the prison walls and prayer.

'I Was Afraid Something Could Happen to Me'

Saberi said she was fed well three times a day yet was kept in a small room with a bell to ring when she needed to use the bathroom or take a shower. She began trying to sleep as late as possible to make the days seems shorter.

While in prison, Saberi said she felt that there was a lot of misinformation circulated about her and her case. It was frustrating, she said, because she wasn't allowed to speak for herself and was allowed to give only limited information to her parents.

It took days, she said, to speak to them after her arrest.

"When I was allowed to call my parents 11 days later, my interrogators told me I had to lie and tell them that I was arrested for having alcohol in my home, which was not true at all. And I had to tell them that I didn't know where I was," she said. "I was afraid that something could happen to me and maybe nobody would find out."

Saberi said she was also told to tell her parents not to contact the media. The first lawyer they sent to Evin, she said, was told Saberi wasn't there.

"And at the same time from Day 1, my interrogators were insisting that I was a U.S. spy and they said, 'If you don't confess to being a U.S. spy, we will not free you -- if you don't cooperate, if you don't confess that you are a U.S. spy, we could keep you in prison for 10 or 20 years,'" she said. "And they said, 'When you come out, you will be an old woman,' or even I could face execution."

But despite her initial confession and possession of a document Iranian authorities charged was classified, Saberi said she was merely in Iran researching a book.

"I hope that most people know, but for anybody who has any doubts, I was never a spy, I am not a spy and I never will be a spy," she said.

Saberi said she still doesn't know exactly why she was picked up but theorized that Iranian officials had spent so much time monitoring her -- actions of journalists are often suspect in Iran -- that "they wanted something to show for their hard work."

The so-called classified document, Saberi said, was actually a 2002 document she found while editing English grammar for some publications. Saberi said her captors didn't even know about it until she told them during one of the interrogation sessions.

"They were pressuring me to say that I had classified documents, and I didn't have any, but under pressure I started describing docs that I did have," she said. "And so later they brought me to my home and I gave them the documents that they didn't already have."

The information in the document, she said, "didn't contain any information that had not been stated several times before by Iranian officials."

Saberi Hopes for Better U.S.-Iran Relations

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.

"There are many who like the status quo, and there are many who want to change the status quo, both in the regime and the society," she said. "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. and outspoken Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continue to be at odds.

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.

"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 said. "I also learned that, do what you think is right even if you suffer for it,in the end you will be victorious."

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.

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 her passport was stolen during a robbery and she tried to obtain a new one. 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."

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

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