When Roxana Saberi packed her bags for Iran in 2003, she could not have anticipated that part of her six-year stay would include five months in the country's most notorious prison. When her press credentials were suddenly revoked in 2006 (after years of filing reports for foreign news organizations), she chose to stay in the country she had grown to love and work on a book instead. Then on Jan. 31, 2009, four men forced her from her home, accused her of being a spy and placed her in solitary confinement in Evin Prison. She was heavily interrogated and coerced into telling a false tale of how she used her book as a cover for her work as an American spy — a "confession" she later recanted. After a sham trial, she was sentenced to eight years in prison. Thanks in large part to international calls for her release (most notably from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton), Saberi was freed on May 11, 2009. She returned home to publishBetween Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran — a much different book than the one she initially planned on writing.(See an audio slide show of Iranian society.)
Reading the acknowledgments section of your book is incredible — just to see all the people and organizations that supported your release.
I was very humbled by it and very grateful. Almost a little embarrassed that my detention had created such a fuss. I did hear a little bit about some of the efforts that were taking place on my behalf when I was in prison, and I felt empowered. I felt like I was not alone anymore.
How did the people of Iran — those who are not part of the regime — respond to your story?
When I was released, the Iranian people, many of them, came up to me and apologized for the way I was treated. They said, "I'm so sorry you were our guest in this country and this is how you were treated." I said, "I know it's not your fault. You had nothing to do with those people who arrested me." There were very kind shopkeepers who didn't want to charge me. A taxi driver told me that a local bazaar was selling "Roxana scarves" [blue scarves that resembled the one she wore in a photograph circulated in the media]. That was very amusing. It's not just me who they treat this way, but other political prisoners and prisoners of conscience who go to Evin. When they come out, they are seen as heroes. It's the exact opposite of what the regime wants to happen. I think that Iranians know that some of the best people — the most courageous among them — are sent to prison. They're punished because they are courageous enough to speak out for basic rights.(See pictures of daily life in Iran.)
Do you have hope for the future of Iran?
I do have hope for the country. Of course, right now, like many people, I am worried about the current state of affairs — the oppression and brutality and violence that has been used against people peacefully pursuing basic human rights. But I think the majority wants a more peaceful democratic government, a government that respects human rights.
Do you think change is possible?
So much of the population is young. About two-thirds of the population is under 30, so they weren't alive at the time of the revolution. They're more and more connected to the world through technology and travel, relatives in other countries. More and more women are going to universities, many people are moving from the rural areas into the cities so they're exposed to new ideas. Many Iranians realize what universal human rights are, and they want rights that they see other people in other countries having. Right now they face a lot of obstacles, but I think they will prevail. It's not clear when, but eventually they will.
In the meantime, a lot of Iranians may end up in a situation like yours.
I cried when I was freed, and my tears were both of joy and of sorrow — joy for my freedom, but sorrow for those prisoners of conscience I was leaving behind. I was freed in large part because of the amount of international support I was fortunate to get. What about all these other people? They deserve freedom as much as I did. That's a large part of why I wrote this book. So people would understand what happened to me is happening to so many others. I felt like I had both an opportunity and a responsibility to tell of the injustices that are taking place.
Will these methods succeed in silencing those who want change in Iran?
Using force and violence, imprisoning people, intimidating and harassing them — that will never eliminate these demands for change. It might scare them into silence, but it will only increase the gap between the regime and a large part of society. When you imprison one, you're breeding resentment among many other people — that prisoner's family members, friends and colleagues — so they are multiplying resentment by the measures they are using.
In the epilogue, you say that when you were first at home in the U.S., you found yourself looking over your shoulder. Do you still have that feeling? Like the Iranian government could come after you?
Yes, sometimes I do. I wonder if they can still read my e-mails now that I'm in America. Do they follow me here? They made it seem like they have agents all over the world, and I know that they do have a lot of agents in different parts of the world. I know other former prisoners feel the same way I do, and some have been threatened. I have not been threatened.
You didn't know for six years in Iran that they were following you as closely as they were.
People have asked me, "If you knew you were being watched or you thought you might be monitored, why did you still interview people?" I tell them, "Because what I was doing wasn't illegal." I was doing my work openly. I had nothing to hide. It's like Gandhi says, "There won't be a need for the secret service if you think everything out loud." I always thought if they know what I am doing, they will see that it is harmless. Every time I would go on an interview, I would tell people this was going to be published in English, to show a more complete view of Iran for outsiders. People were very willing to talk to me. They wanted outsiders to have a more comprehensive view of Iran.
Do you still plan to publish the book you were working on at the time of your arrest?
I'm not sure. I do hope that I can return to that book. If I don't write it, it could be a victory for my captors.