Jailed Iranian-American Esha Momeni Returns Home to California

Esha Momeni went to Iran 10 months ago to study the women's rights movement, as work for her graduate thesis at California State University-Northridge. She returned last week to U.S. soil after weeks in prison and months barred from leaving the Islamic Republic.

Momeni, a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen, was arrested Oct. 15, 2008, as she was driving in Tehran. Security officials later went to her home and confiscated videotapes of her thesis research -- interviews with prominent women's rights activists. She was accused of propaganda against the state and acting against national security.

Momeni, 29, was sent to Section 209 of Evin Prison, run by state intelligence and security. Her professors and friends at California State launched a campaign for her release, echoed by human rights activists and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, Momeni spent more than three weeks in solitary confinement, without access to a lawyer, broken up by 10- to 12-hour stretches of questioning.

"I had 19 interrogation sessions," she told ABC News. "Even though it was so scary, I would rather be there, because the time would pass more quickly."

Momeni, who was born in Los Angeles after her family left Iran, was not physically harmed but, she said, the psychological pressure was intense.

Taking as evidence her meetings with reform advocates and women's rights groups, her interrogators accused her of being part of a "velvet revolution" against the regime. "They kept asking, 'Who's behind your project? Who sent you to come here? Who paid you? Have you ever met a CIA agent? Have you met an FBI agent?' Then they'd say, 'If you confess, we'll help you, we'll let you go,'" she said, adding that they pushed her for a signed confession.

"I would just write and write for hours, they'd just tear it up and say, 'You're lying.' I kept saying look, 'If you want to tell the story, write it down. I don't know it, I can't make it up."

After 28 days in Evin, Momeni was released Nov. 10, 2008, after her family posted $200,000 bail. Even after her release, however. life didn't return to normal. Prison time was difficult but, she said, living in fear on the outside was even harder.

"At least when you're inside, you know your limitations," she said. "You know I can walk this much, I can go out this much, I can see sky this much. When you're out and it seems you're free, they actually make you feel terrible."

Her interrogators kept calling, and Momeni was in court at least twice a week. At one hearing, court officials replayed a private conversation between her sister and friends at the family home in Tehran, where the family had resettled after living in California. Momeni was sure her house had been bugged. Authorities kept her passport and, on Jan. 13, 2008, Ali Reza Jamshidi, spokesman for Iran's judiciary, said she was officially banned from leaving Iran.

The Iran Election Strikes

As Iran's presidential election approached in June, Momeni backed Mehdi Karroubi, a reformist cleric widely seen as the most liberal of the four candidates. Momeni's contacts in the women's movement endorsed him as well, for his platform of gender equality.

When the results came in, Ahmadinejad officially winning by a landslide, she and her friends hit the streets. Momeni knew that given her record with the regime, joining the protests meant taking a high personal risk. For a degree of protection, she covered her face with a scarf and joined the demonstrations.

"Even my parents wouldn't stop me, because they felt all of us should go," she said. "It felt like our national duty."

Momeni fought her fear of riot police and the crackdown that had turned deadly violent. As the police broke up the rallies, Momeni and her friends would run and hide in shops, or in the homes of people who had opened their doors to let them in. An acquaintance in the crowd was beaten on the head with a baton, and died hours later of the injury, she said.

"It was scary; very scary,' she said. "Because going out to a protest, you don't know if you're going to come home or not.

"Then you feel ashamed of feeling scared. You saw 80-year-old people, people in wheelchairs, and you feel ashamed. If they go, why should you feel scared?"

Where the Protests Stand

When she left Tehran last week, Momeni said, small protests were still happening, but security forces had blocked major rallies. Hours before an event, riot police would deploy in large force at the announced location, keeping people from stopping or gathering.

The mood in Tehran had shifted with the ongoing court cases against dozens of opposition figures, accused of planning the post-election unrest with the help of foreign powers and plotting a soft overthrow of the regime. Prominent voices of the women's movement, like Zhila Bani Yaqoub and Shiva Nazarahari, are among those jailed, though it's unclear whether their cases have gone to court.

"Three million people marched in the streets, now they're taking a hundred people and saying they were the leaders of a velvet revolution," Momeni said of the general indignation.

"We know we were in the streets and we know we just wanted to be there, nobody pushed us. I believe they are making this show for their own supporters, just to convince them. It's not for the majority."

Momeni said that Iran's various human rights groups are now all investing in the green movement, using decades of know-how in civil disobedience and evading state security. Opposition supporters had begun protesting by going "green shopping" -- packing Tehran's Grand Bazaar as passersby, dressed in green.

As state forces lined the streets and shops shuttered to avoid potential clashes, the market would be paralyzed. During her final nights in Tehran, chants of "Allahu Akbar" (Arabic for "God is great") were still wailing from the rooftops.

"What I saw, it'll never stop," she said. "People just find a new way to fight."

Back in California, Momeni is finishing her graduate thesis, using photographs as a substitute for the lost video interviews seized by Iranian authorities. She is back to her fiancée, Hassan Hussein, and back to the life she left behind a year ago.

"The best part is, finally, I feel safe," Momeni said. "But at the same time, I miss Iran."