Saberi: I still don’t know why I was detained. From the outset, I was charged
with being ‘threat to national
security’, which as you know its definition in Iran can be very extensive. Maybe even what viewers are doing, watching
your show via satellite, fits one of those definitions and they too are a
threat to national security. Since I’m
a dual citizen, American and Iranian, and was a journalist and was working on
a book, they were suspicious of me. I
wanted to write a book about Iran’s society and depict the positive aspect of
Iran, that Iranians have a rich history and culture. This was for foreigners,
but those who interrogated me at the beginning said to me that you are a spy.
I want to say that most people know that I’m not a spy, but for those who
don’t know I want to say that I am not a spy, never was and never will be.
Asked to lie about arrest
Setareh: Was your detention sudden? Were you ever given an ultimatum, had you ever had the feeling that they may approach you?
Saberi: First of all, I want to add something to my previous answer. After a
few days, I asked my interrogator if I could call my father and tell him
about my situation, because no one had any news from me or knew where I was.
I knew that my father was upset not knowing where I was. They let me call my father only under the
condition that I lie to him and tell him that I was arrested because I was in
possession of alcoholic beverages. I was told that I would be released but to
also tell my father not to say anything about my whereabouts. This is how the
reports about my detention while purchasing wine started.
Duped into opening apartment door
Setareh: Tell us how and where you were arrested? And you said they didn’t let you inform anyone of your arrest.
Saberi: It was the morning of January 31 when someone rang my doorbell. I asked who it was through the [apartment] intercom. I was told there was a letter for me, so I thought it was the mailman. So I opened the door for him. Four men came in, I tried to shut it again but one of them put one foot in and prevented me from closing the door. They were four intelligence agents and they entered my apartment. They confiscated my computer, some books and family pictures. Then they took me to another building and none of my neighbors saw what happened. In that other building, they said if you confess to being a spy, by night you will be released, otherwise you will be taken to prison.
Setareh: Did they say why they are detaining you?
Saberi: No they were never transparent about it. They just said that we know
that you have collaborated with the American intelligence apparatus. I said that is not true at all. That same
night, they took me to Evin prison.
Solitary confinement, lies under pressure
Setareh: At Evin, were you in solitary?
Saberi: At first I was in solitary for two weeks, then they transferred me to a jail with 3, 4 other women who changed constantly. But they were all political prisoners in ward 209 of the prison.
Setareh: What types of questions did they ask you during the interrogations?
Saberi: They asked me about a lot of things. They wanted to connect
everything that was and was not in my life to espionage. They were suspicious
of everything I had done. For example, why did you interview this person or
that person, or why did you go to the French Embassy. I said because I wanted
to enroll in French classes. They kept saying no, no, there is more to it.
They were suspicious of everything I had done. So under lots of psychological
pressure, I lied a lot during the interrogations. I was thinking to myself, I
will say whatever they want just to save myself. I just wanted to get out of
there. I lied about myself and others, for which, I am very sorry.
Was she tortured?
Setareh: There are reports, and it has happened in the past that in Iranian prisons confessions are extracted either through exerting psychological or physical pressure. So you mean to say that they got confessions from you under psychological duress?
Saberi: Yes. There was no physical
torture, but I was under extreme psychological pressure. They would tell me
that if I don’t confess to being a spy, I could be there in prison for 10, 20
years or that I could even be executed. My problem was that nobody knew where
I was. So I thought what if something happens to me and nobody ever finds
out? I was very scared. As many know,
if someone wants to escape such situation, he/she has to give some
confession, even if it is a lie.
Setareh: In the hope of being released?
Saberi: Yes, because they promise to release you if you confess. One thing they do is they record the confession and they video recorded my confession. Now I want to say here that if one day they decide to show that video, it’s all a lie. I lied a lot in that confession thinking that once I’m released I will fix it and announce that it was all lies.
Setareh: Under those circumstances?
Saberi: Yes. They told me to say that I’m a spy for the U.S., so I said, “I’m
a spy for the US” and a lot of other nonsense. Now, I was supposed to be
released, and I had a heavy conscious and thought about the God that I
I thought he had deserted me in the first few days, but he was always there with me and I discovered him again and felt that he was upset with me because I had lied. So I retracted my confession. Then as I had thought, they didn’t release me, they sent my case to [the] court that sentenced me to 8 years in prison. What’s interesting is that when I told my interrogator that I retracted my confession, he said from the very first day he knew that it was all lies. But they still allowed this lie to go on. I want to add something -- that not everyone I encountered in this process mismanaged the situation, no there were some who were really after the truth but some others acted unjustly.
Setareh: According to Iranian media, during the years you spent in Iran you traveled overseas a number of times. One of the issues that was brought up in your case was that you were in possession of confidential documents. Tell us about this.
Saberi: The Iranian court claims that I was in possession of confidential
documents. But I don’t think they were confidential. As you know, many things
in the Iranian system are not transparent and some of the things the authorities say aren’t necessarily true.
The document in question did not bear the "confidential" stamp. I’ve heard
that such documents must have that stamp, which this one didn’t.
Furthermore, it was an old document, from several years ago and didn’t contain anything that hadn’t been already discussed publicly and very openly several times by others. What’s interesting is that they had no idea about it when they detained me. I told them myself.
Conditions of release
Setareh: Did they ever have you sign a document not to talk about this episode once you are released?
Saberi: Not in writing, but they did tell me not to talk about it.
Setareh: You know that international bodies voiced huge support for you. You went on a hunger strike while you were in prison. Did you ever foresee the reaction of the regime or the result of your strike? What result did you expect from your hunger strike?
Saberi: I thought that I was justified to go on hunger strike. Because once
the 8 year prison sentence was handed down to me, I realized that I would
have been released had I not retracted my confession but that now I had to
stay in prison just for telling the truth.
I felt that there was no justice there, at least in my case. Still, I preferred to tell the truth and stay in prison, but I still thought I had a right to go on a hunger strike. I wasn’t sure that the legal process would uphold my rights since they had already given me 8 years of prison for nothing. So, that is why I went on hunger strike. I started off with sweetened water for two weeks.
And yes I did hear that they denied I was on a hunger strike. But I don’t know how I could have lost 10, 12 pounds and my blood pressure dropped so low that they hooked me up to IV had I not been on hunger strike. In the end, I don’t know if it had any effect or not.
Ending hunger strike
Saberi: There were several reasons: first,
my mother threatened me that if I didn’t break my hunger strike, she would go
on one too. Second, a large number of people around the world, who were total
strangers to me, were offering to continue the hunger strike on my behalf
themselves. Third, I decided to see what might happen in the appeals court.
If they were more fair, fine, if not then I would start my hunger strike
Setareh: Were you aware of the international reactions or the support of governments and human rights bodies? How did you find out about them?
Saberi: It was just recently that I found out everyone knew where I was.
Setareh: You mean after a while everyone knew that you were in prison?
Saberi: Yes. Even when I went to take back my confessions, I still didn’t
know that anyone knew. I saw my lawyer when I went back to court to retract
my confession but they didn’t allow me to talk to him until after I had
gotten back my confession back.
So that was the day that I found out [about the international support]. I asked my lawyer to tell my parents where I was and what had happened. He said they, and everyone else, know as well.
After several weeks when they sentenced me to 8 years in prison, I saw the reaction of the Western media to my case in a report on Iranian state television, because after a while they gave me a television set.
What led to release?
Setareh: Some believe that there were different reasons for your release. Some in Iran believe that it the regime has become more flexible because of Barack Obama having become the US president, some say that it was due to your dual nationality, and some others think it was a concession by the regime in view of the presidential elections there. What do you think? Why was your case somewhat different from other similar legal/judicial cases in Iran?
Saberi: I’m not sure what the main reason was, probably there was more than one.
Maybe there were different people who were instrumental in my release. And I want to thank all of them, those in Iran and outside of Iran, who supported me.
Setareh: Do you think international pressure had anything to do with it?
Saberi: I believe it was very effective. My parents also helped a lot. But I
have to say that without the international support, I would still be in
prison. Just as is the case with others who are still in prison there.
Setareh: What are your future plans? Do you intend to return to Iran? You are now in a special situation and have found international fame. Earlier you said that you were working on a book. Do you think you want to use your new position to possibly introduce another Iran?
Saberi: Yes… I went to Iran 6 years ago. I didn’t speak Farsi and wanted to learn it, my father is Iranian and I wanted to see my Iranian homeland and I wanted to do some work there. I had not intended to stay that long, but it proved so attractive to me that I decided to stay. I realized what a beautiful culture, what hospitable and kind people Iranians are. I was so excited in Iran that every time I traveled overseas, I missed the country [Iran] and wanted to return as soon as possible.
I love Iran and am proud to be an Iranian, just as I am proud of being an American and Japanese.
I would definitely love to return to Iran
Setareh: Now you are in a new position. Many across the world are now listening to you. How do you intend to use this position to make the voices of others in Iran heard or to introduce Iran?
Saberi: I would love to use my experiences for this purpose, just like I had
previously intended to do to introduce Iran. Of course, no part of the world is
problem-free. In Iran too, there are challenges and opportunities, and I
think this is the real "visage" of Iran. There are different people, different
groups and this is the beauty of Iran. I think of it as a rainbow, and that’s
what I want to show foreigners.
Back in the USA
Setareh: You spent most of your life in the U.S. Obviously, when you returned you must have known that your life might be different now. When you entered the US soil, what did you feel?
Saberi: I was very glad and knew that all those whom I know and don’t know,
but were supporting me, they would be happy too and at the airport I said that
when I was in prison there, sometimes I would sing the national anthem. But
that is not because I’m more proud of being an American than anything else.
Had I known the Iranian national anthem, I would have sung it as well.
I want to say that I am very pleased to have found my Iranian heritage and I think it will always stay with me.
Love for Iran?
Setareh: This ordeal has not made you want to forget your Iranian identity?
Saberi: Not at all, many of the people I met during the past 6 years and even during the past several months were very kind to me, be it in prison or outside. They helped my father and I a lot.