A Russian journalist who was detained for a week during a private visit to Iran this month says she believes her detention was intended to punish her for her Iran-related journalism.
Yulia Yuzik has worked as a reporter for Russia’s Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper and Russky Newsweek, a former publication that was the Russian version of U.S. magazine Newsweek. She also has authored two books based on her investigative journalism since 2003, including Brides of Allah about female suicide bombers and Requiem For Beslan about her interviews with survivors of the 2004 Beslan school massacre in Russia's North Ossetia.
In a series of interviews since she returned to Moscow from Iran on Oct.10, Yuzik has accused Iranian authorities of luring her to the country to retaliate against her for negative Iran-related news and analysis that she had posted to her Facebook page. The interviews appeared on VOA’s Russian Service, VOA's sister networks RFE/RL and Radio Farda, and Russia’s MK newspaper.
“I think my whole story of being guided into Iran was a planned operation, but anyone behind that decision did not think that my arrest would produce such a noise,” Yuzik told Radio Farda, referring to Russian diplomatic protests that led to her release. Those protests included Russian foreign ministry statements calling on Iran to grant consular access to Yuzik and quickly resolve her case.
Yuzik, a mother of four who previously lived and worked as a journalist in Iran, arrived in Tehran on Sept. 29 on what she said was a private trip at the invitation of her former boss at the Iranian state-run network PressTV. Yuzik said she had worked for Bahram Hanlar, the head of PressTV’s IranToday program, for several months in 2017 before returning to Russia.
She said Hanlar, a man she had trusted, invited her back to the Iranian capital to clear up “misunderstandings” from an October 2018 visit that had ended unpleasantly, with authorities at Tehran’s airport delaying her departure for almost a day as they questioned her and searched her belongings. She said the security personnel found nothing wrong and apologized for the hassle.
Yuzik said she paid for and was granted a visa on her arrival in Tehran last month, but was stopped at a customs checkpoint and had her passport taken away for what authorities said were “technical reasons.” She said security personnel refused to let her return immediately to Russia, while Hanlar, who had arrived at the airport to meet her, also refused to escort her from the airport to the Russian Embassy in Tehran, at which point she felt that she was in a “hostage” situation.
She said Hanlar, who insisted on accompanying her from the airport, took her to a hotel and the next day to an hours-long interrogation by Iranian agents, while repeatedly assuring her that she would get her passport back shortly. She said her former boss also took her souvenir shopping in Tehran on Oct. 1, the second full day of her visit, before security agents entered her hotel room and arrested her the next day.
Yuzik said she had communicated privately with her mother in Russia about her predicament in the two days before her arrest but did not say anything publicly about her concerns for fear of making the situation worse. She said she later realized that her public silence was a mistake.
After being detained at her hotel, Yuzik said she was taken blindfolded to a prison and a courtroom in unknown locations, where authorities accused her of being a spy for Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency. She said they demanded that she confess to espionage but provided no evidence of wrongdoing besides telling her that her last name “Yuzik” sounded like the word for “Jewish” in Farsi, which it does.
'Every day turned into hell'
In her media interviews, Yuzik said she is neither Jewish nor Israeli and never worked for Israeli intelligence. She said she told that to her interrogators, who warned her that she could face the death penalty for spying.
“Every day (in custody) turned into hell. They psychologically toyed with me,” Yuzik told VOA Russian. “The interrogations were sophisticated – they scare you to death and then show your passport and say, if you give us information now, we don’t need to keep you anymore, you’ll go home, and we will buy you a (plane) ticket today. And so it went on, day after day. They made me hysterical,” she said.
Despite her mental anguish, Yuzik said she was not physically abused or harmed in prison.
Yuzik said she suspected that her interrogators, who had seized and accessed her phone, were angered by her recent Facebook postings about Iran and Israel-related news developments. She cited one particular post in April, when she reported claims by Iranian opposition activists that Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps General Ali Nasiri had defected and fled the country.
The IRGC denied those claims, while announcing Nasiri had been reassigned from his position as head of an IRGC “protection” unit that oversees security for senior Iranian officials.
“I was one of the first in Russia to write that the head of Iranian counterintelligence fled either to Israel or to America,” Yuzik told RFE/RL, referring to Nasiri. “When I ended up in this (prison) cell, I started thinking that perhaps he hadn't fled, maybe it was all some kind of propaganda fabrication … (and) perhaps they were seeking revenge by accusing me of working for Israel.”
Yuzik said she believed her Iranian interrogators thought they could get away with detaining her because they knew she was a Russian opposition figure whom they assumed Russia’s government would be unwilling to help. She had staged an unsuccessful run for a parliamentary seat in 2016 with a Russian opposition party.
During Yuzik’s detention, Russia’s foreign ministry said it had summoned Iran's ambassador to Moscow to seek “clarifications” over her arrest and to ensure that her rights were respected.
“I'm sure the decision (to intervene in my case) was made at the highest level, and maybe because of good relations with Russia, Iran agreed to do something it usually doesn’t,” Yuzik said to Radio Farda. She said Iranian authorities released her on Oct. 9, taking her blindfolded from prison to Tehran’s airport, where a Russian diplomat met her before she boarded a flight home. Iran has jailed other foreigners accused of security offenses for years.
In an Oct. 10 Facebook post (her Facebook account currently appears to be inactive) after she arrived back in Moscow, Yuzik specifically thanked Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for working toward her release.
In a radio interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda on the same day, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova declined to discuss the steps taken by Russia to secure Yuzik’s release. “The fact that she is free is all that is important to us,” Zakharova said.
Never going back
In her media interviews, Yuzik vowed never to return to Iran. She said she may have been naive in believing that the love she developed toward the country by visiting multiple times in recent years would be reciprocated by her Iranian hosts.
Iranian officials have not commented on Yuzik’s case since her post-release interviews were published. While she was in detention, Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei said she had been arrested for allegedly violating visa rules rather than for engaging in espionage.
Media rights groups have not commented on Yuzik’s allegation that her detention was intended to punish her for posting negative news about Iran online.
⚠️ Journalist #YuliaYuzik has been freed and is on her way back to Moscow. We welcome her release and call on Iranian authorities to clarify the reasons for the arrest #PressFreedom @RujNews https://t.co/X7jQUmGjWQ— IFJ (@IFJGlobal) October 10, 2019
Prior to the publication of Yuzik's interviews, the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists welcomed her release and called on Iranian authorities to “clarify” the reasons for her arrest.
The Washington-based Committee to Protect Journalists told VOA Persian that it determined Yuzik’s arrest was “not directly connected to her journalism” and does not fall under CPJ’s mandate.
The Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) had issued a call for Yuzik’s release on Oct. 8, a day before she was set free. But RSF did not respond to a VOA Persian request for comment about her allegation that Iran detained her because of her journalistic activities online.
This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service.