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What It's Like Inside An Iranian Prison


We are going to turn now to someone who unfortunately knows the experience of the recently-released prisoners all too well. Journalist Roxana Saberi spent four months in the notorious Evin Prison in 2009 after being arrested and convicted on charges of espionage after a secret, one-day trial. We reached her in New York. Roxana, thanks so much for speaking with us.

ROXANA SABERI: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Now I remember your speaking with my colleague, Melissa Block, right after you were released. And you said you never knew why you were arrested and you didn't know why you were released. How about now? Did you ever find out anything about what went into all of that?

SABERI: I'm still not certain. I think there are different possible reasons that they arrested me and then released me. I think they might have wanted, when they arrested me, to try to get information about, you know, what I was doing. I was writing a book, interviewing a lot of people - they said too many people to be just writing a book. They said it was a cover for espionage for the CIA, which, of course, it was not. They might've wanted to use me as a pawn - a political pawn - against the United States. They wanted, perhaps, to set an example because I was a journalist, dual-national citizen, to create fear for other journalists or dual-national citizens and to intimidate them. And as for my release, I'm not sure, but I think that one of the main factors was that I was very lucky to have a lot of support and people calling for my release - both friends and strangers in Iran and outside of Iran. And I think that made a big difference.

MARTIN: Can you give us a sense of what the Americans are going through as they are being released? Do you get some notice that this is happening? What is said to you?

SABERI: Wow, well, just thinking back to that day that I was told I was going to be released - I was shocked because I had been sentenced to eight years in prison. I mean, I went through an appellate trial. And the next day, they told me I would be freed. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe it until I was on the plane getting out of Iran because I thought, well, what if they change their mind and say I can't leave? I think these prisoners - former prisoners now - probably feel much same way. I understand, from speaking to a family member of - one of the family members of Amir Hekmati (unintelligible) surprised. So I'm guessing that the Iranian-Americans were also very surprised. For me, it was a very bittersweet moment. It was bitter because I was leaving behind some friends that I had made a prison - political prisoners that I thought should also be released. But, of course, it's very sweet because you long for your freedom. You long for some very basic things, whether it's walks down on the street without a blindfold on, to ride in a car without handcuffs, to make a phone call, to see the sun whenever you want to. You long to be with your family and friends.

MARTIN: Did you have a sense that you were treated differently from other prisoners because of your nationality - because of your dual citizenship?

SABERI: I think in some ways I was treated better. I can't say that's always the case for dual nationals. There was an Iranian-Canadian journalists - Zahra Kazemi, a photojournalist. She died in Iranian custody in 2003. And the nature of that death or the cause was never really made clear. I know that there are some prisoners who have been physically tortured in Iran, and I was not physically tortured. It was more psychological pressure - what has been called white torture - which doesn't leave a mark on your body but can devastate your mind and your conscience.

MARTIN: Like what? I was going to ask you - like what? Because one of the things I noted that, again, you spoke about when you were released is how they lied to you or they always were encouraging you to lie. For example, you were initially told to say that you were arrested because you bought alcohol, which was absolutely not true. I mean, of course...

SABERI: Right.

MARTIN: ...It wasn't true that you were conducting espionage - what you were doing was journalism as we understand it. But I just found - was that pattern of lying or being told lies or being told to lie, was that part of it?

SABERI: It really can rob you of your dignity, yeah, because you're - most people are raised to tell the truth. And you start to wonder, you know, what am I doing to my dignity? What am I doing to my character? I was coerced into making a false confession, as a lot of political prisoners are. And although I recanted it, you know, it was a very - it was a long journey, and it can be very difficult. You feel very alone, but, I think in those cases what helped me - what probably helped these prisoners is to know that people on the outside do care.

MARTIN: What are they facing in the days, weeks and months ahead? What are some the things that they are likely to experience that the rest of us would not necessarily think of?

SABERI: For some, it may be easier than others. I know, in my case, it could be - it was very difficult sometimes. I - for a while, I kept looking over my shoulder thinking someone was following me. I had nightmares that people were coming to get me. Once in a while, I still do but very rarely. It took a couple of years to start feeling truly happy again. Right now, I'm in a really good place. But I know, speaking to different former political prisoners, many of them have traveled the same kind of path. You know, people want to help you, but very few people have gone through a similar experience, so it's hard for them to relate. And sometimes it just takes time, and also I found what helped me was dedicating myself to something I was passionate about, which was, first of all, talking about the fellow political prisoners I had left behind and (unintelligible) going back into journalism. So I think what helps - hopefully will help these prisoners when they come out will also be finding that purpose in life.

MARTIN: That's Roxana Saberi, who spent four months in the Evin Prison in 2009. She currently is working as a journalist for Al Jazeera America. Roxana Saberi, thanks so much for speaking with us.

SABERI: Thanks for having me, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.