Our Family Hostage Crisis

By Shaul Bakhash, a professor of history at George Mason University (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 27/06/07):

IRAN’S judiciary says it expects to announce a decision this week or next in the case of my wife, Haleh Esfandiari, and two other Iranian-Americans, Kian Tajbakhsh and Ali Shakeri, who have been held in solitary confinement at Tehran’s Evin prison since early May. The fate of these detainees could be resolved by Iran’s government in a number of ways. Only one would be in the best interests of the Islamic Republic: the detainees should be freed and all charges dropped.

The three detainees are not connected to one another. Haleh is the director of the Middle East program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington; Mr. Tajbakhsh is a social scientist and urban planner with the Open Society Institute in New York City; and Mr. Shakeri is a founder of the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at the University of California, Irvine. But so far, their cases have followed an ominously familiar pattern.

First, there is an arrest. Then, to justify the unjustifiable, the authorities come up with outlandish charges and accusations; in the case of my wife and the two men, they are accused of spying and endangering Iran’s national security, allegations vague enough to criminalize the most common scholarly activities.

Next — and we seem to have entered this stage now — some in the Iranian leadership recognize what the imprisonment and false charges are doing to Iran’s international standing, and attempt damage control. In the last two weeks, smear campaigns against Haleh in newspapers close to the regime have stopped. A judiciary official has claimed that she is in good health — a claim difficult to credit when for the past 50 days she has been interrogated and intimidated and denied family visits, legal representation and the medication and medical attention she needs.

Meanwhile, the security services seem compelled to prove the arrests enabled them to uncover “networks” and expose “subversives.” They demand yet more time to complete their “investigations,” heedless of the damage they do to the mental and physical health of the detainees and the anguish they cause their families.

Over the years, many Iranian intellectuals, writers and academics have been put on trial for “espionage” or “endangering national security,” sentenced to sometimes long prison terms and mistreated in the process. In a particularly horrific case in 2003, an Iranian-Canadian photographer, Zahra Kazemi, died under interrogation at Evin prison.

We also have examples of false confessions, such as the one given by Ramin Jahanbegloo, an Iranian scholar. After being held at Evin prison for nearly four months, he was forced to make a statement that he had been exploited by American institutions, leading him to act against national security without knowing it. This “confession” was all security agencies could produce. The elephant had given birth to a mouse.

Security officials seem to be angling for similar false confessions in the current cases. How else to explain the harsh interrogation of my wife, a 67-year-old grandmother, and two middle-aged academics? How else to understand a statement by an Intelligence Ministry official two weeks ago that Haleh and Mr. Tajbakhsh “have accepted that they have carried out some activities, but they say their aim was to help”?

No one, in Iran or elsewhere, believes these coerced statements. They do nothing for the country’s security or its international standing. They only make the regime look inhumane.

Iran does not have to repeat this sorry charade in the case of Haleh and the others it is now holding. There is another, admittedly untypical, model it could follow. In March the Iranian government arrested 15 British sailors and marines it claimed had violated Iranian territorial waters. True to form, the captives were initially held incommunicado. Government officials hinted vaguely at charges of trespassing. Interrogators attempted to extract “confessions.”

Yet within two weeks the Britons were released. The international brouhaha quickly subsided, and Iran faced no embarrassing aftermath. In fact, the government gained good marks for acting with common sense and, after some missteps, showing respect for the detainees and concern for international opinion.

In the case of my wife and the others, the Iranian authorities can repeat the discreditable mistakes of the past or they can emulate the good sense they eventually displayed with the British. They can free the detainees and bring a quick end to what has become an embarrassing episode for Iran and a cruel experience for those they have so unfairly imprisoned.