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Esfandiari Back at Work After Three Months in Iranian Prison

Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari was back at work in Washington Monday, after spending more than three months in solitary confinement in an Iranian prison. She was accused of espionage. Esfandiari told reporters she was determined to not let herself fall apart. VOA's Cindy Saine reports from Washington.

Haleh Esfandiari celebrated a joyful return to work Monday as Director of the Middle East program for the Woodrow Wilson International Center. But the 67-year-old told reporters the months of interrogations and then solitary confinement were not easy.

"For eight months I was denied my freedom to leave the country," said Haleh Esfandiari. "And to lose eight months of your life at any age, but more particularly when you are in your 60's is a large loss."

Esfandiari's ordeal began last December when she visited her ailing 93-year-old mother in Tehran. On the way to the airport for her flight home, she was robbed at knifepoint of both her Iranian and U.S. passports. When she went to get a new passport, she was arrested and interrogated for weeks by Iranian intelligence officials. Iranian prosecutors accused her of harming Iran's national security and trying to foment what they termed a "velvet revolution."

Esfandiari and the Wilson Center strongly denied the charges. She said she tried to convince her interrogators that her work for the research institute is transparent, and that she seeks to help women in the Middle East to get involved in the political process.

She was allowed to stay at her mother's apartment until May, when she was taken to Iran's notorious Evin prison, where political prisoners are held.

Esfandiari said she decided from the very beginning to make the best of her situation.

"To maintain my mental and physical well-being I imposed a strict discipline on myself," she said. "A daily schedule of exercise, reading and also writing project I carried on in my head."

Esfandiari said she was always treated with respect by her Iranian interrogators, but added "a prison is a prison."

Her release came after Lee Hamilton, the director of the Woodrow Wilson Center, made a direct appeal in a message to Iran's powerful Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Esfandiari described how it felt to return to her home in a Washington suburb.

"I walked into our house and I started going from room to room," said Esfandiari. "I had blocked, you know, thinking about my husband, my daughter, my grandchildren, the house. I had blocked all that out because that would have led me to despair."

She said she is grateful to be home and thankful to everyone who kept her case alive. Iran is still detaining two other Iranian-Americans, Kian Tajbakksh and Ali Shakeri and preventing journalist Parnaz Azima from leaving the country.