Author/journalist Roxana Saberi speaks in Vail tonight
March 14, 2011
Journalist Roxana Saberi was arrested in Iran in 2009 and spent nearly five months in the country’s most notorious prison. Among the many lessons she learned from the ordeal is how important it is for others to speak for you when you don’t have a voice.
“That is why I believe those of us who are free have the ability and responsibility to use our freedoms to be a voice for the voiceless,” she said. “Each one of us can make a difference in helping those less fortunate, whether they are in our community or on the other side of the world.”
Saberi will speak in Vail on Monday at a Vail Symposium-sponsored presentation. She took the time to answer a few questions for the Vail Daily.
1. Vail Daily: What were you doing in Iran when you were arrested?
Roxana Saberi: I went to Iran in 2003 to report and to get to know my father’s native land. At the time of my arrest on Jan. 31, 2009, I had been working on a book for about two years. I was almost done with that book and getting ready to leave the country when four intelligence agents forced me from my apartment and later that day, took me to Evin Prison. My captors claimed that the book was a cover for espionage for the United States – a charge I denied.
2. VD: Tell me about the conditions in Evin Prison, where you were held?
RS: I was held in a section called 209, which I later learned was controlled by Iran’s Intelligence Ministry and is meant mainly for political prisoners, including journalists, bloggers, student activists and women’s rights advocates.
3. VD: How were you treated?
RS: For the first two weeks, I was held in solitary confinement and went through intense interrogations. I did not face physical torture, although that does happen in Iran’s prisons, and there have been accounts of sexual abuse, hangings and mysterious deaths of prisoners. Like many prisoners, I endured “white torture,” which doesn’t leave a mark on the body but devastates one’s mind and conscience. It is a combination of manipulation, intimidation, isolation, and efforts to rob prisoners of their conscience by making them do and say things, including false confessions, to rob them of their dignity. This kind of torture is quite common for Iran’s political prisoners and prisoners of conscience and has very lasting effects.
Also like many prisoners, I was denied adequate access to an attorney, pressured to lie to my parents about my whereabouts, and put on a sham trial, where I was faced with fabricated charges and evidence.
4. VD: What sustained you?
RS: I was sustained by three main things: My faith, which was challenged more than ever in my life but eventually helped give me the strength and hope I needed. My cellmates, whom I met after I was taken out of solitary confinement. Most of them were being punished simply for peacefully standing up for basic human rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Yet despite their harsh circumstances, they refused to succumb to their captors’ pressures to give up on their beliefs. They showed me how we can deal with adversity by trying to turn it into an opportunity for growth and by staying true to one’s principles. My cellmates included a student activist, a humanitarian worker, followers of a civil disobedience movement, and two of Iran’s seven detained leaders of the minority Baha’i faith. These two Baha’is, along with their five male colleagues, remain behind bars in Iran today.
I also was sustained by the international support I was fortunate to receive, after my whereabouts became known to the outside world. I realized how important it is when you don’t have a voice, to have others speak out for you. At the very least, it empowers you and makes you feel you are no longer alone. That is why I believe those of us who are free have the ability and responsibility to use our freedoms to be a voice for the voiceless. Each one of us can make a difference in helping those less fortunate, whether they are in our community or on the other side of the world.
5. VD: Did you go on a hunger strike while you were in prison? Why?
RS: Yes, for two weeks, partly out of protest at the injustices I had witnessed and experienced in prison. I received an 8-year sentence, with the “confession” my captors had forced from me used as the main “evidence” against me, even though I had recanted it several times and my main interrogator had told me that he knew from the beginning the confession was false. It made me wonder how often Iran’s authorities knowingly falsely accuse prisoners of crimes they didn’t commit, whether for political or other reasons.
I also realized that other than my ability to control my attitude, the other instrument I could use in prison was my body. I hoped that publicity of my hunger strike, (through my parents, who had come to Iran by then), would help pressure my captors to reduce my sentence.
6. VD: Where do you live now? What are you working on? Are you still a journalist?
RS: I am living in America. I have been traveling around the United States, Europe, and other regions to give talks and interviews about Iran, human rights, and the lessons I learned from my cellmates. I also write op-eds on human rights issues related to Iran, and I hope to finish the other book that I was writing about Iran at the time of my arrest.
7. What will you talk about during your appearance in Vail?
RS: I plan to talk about Iranian society, my prison experience, human rights, and the timeless, universal lessons that my cellmates taught me. These are lessons, such as how to face adversities, which we all face in our lives. I also hope to help people realize that each of us can make a difference in confronting injustices near and far from us.