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A Freed US Journalist Talks About Repression In Iran


One woman who has first hand experience of injustice and repression in the Middle East is former NPR Journalist Roxana Serberi. Two years ago, the West was riveted by the story of this young women who was arrested, tried and convicted of espionage in Iran. Her experiences in prison and her insights into the struggle for freedom are detailed in her new book "Between Two Worlds."

One woman who has first hand experience of injustice and repression in the Middle East is former NPR Journalist Roxana Saberi. Two years ago, the West was riveted by the story of this young women who was arrested, tried and convicted of espionage in Iran. Her experiences in prison and her insights into the struggle for freedom are detailed in her new book "Between Two Worlds."

Guest: Former NPR Journalist Roxana Saberi

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and You're listening to These Days on KPBS, pictures of protestors in the streets rising up against repressive regimes have been FLOODING in from northern Africa and the middle east, whether those protests are peaceful or met with violence, they all exhibit deep frustration with dictatorial rule, including secret police forces, and lack of individual rights. One who has first hand experience of injustice and repression in the Middle East is former NPR journalist, Roxana sa berry. Two years ago, the story of this young woman, arrested, tried, and convicted of espionage in Iran, her experiences in prison, and her insights into the struggle for freedom inside Iran are the subject of a new book, it's a pleasure to welcome my guest, Roxana Saberi, author of the book, between two worlds, Roxana, good morning, and thank you for coming in.

SABERI: Thanks for having me, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: I think NPR listeners remember, they followed the story of your imprisonment with great concern. CAN You take us back to the time of your arrest by Iranian authorities? How did that happen?

SABERI: I had been living in Iran for about sick years of I was a reporter there. I was born and raised in America, but I went back to Iran, which is my father's native country, to learn more about the country, and my Iranian identity, and also to report from there. So I had been working on a book about Iranian society, and I was almost done with that book, and getting ready will [CHECK AUDIO] arrest bite four intelligence agents, and they took me that evening to Evin prison, which is known [CHECK AUDIO] ordinary here in America, such as journalists, web bloggers, student activists, women's rights activist, and so on. Members of religious minorities, such as the Baha'i faith, who are imprisoned there. And many of them might be -- many of them have given accounts or we have heard of accounts of physical torture, there have been deaths in Evin prison and other prisons in Iran. And I was taken there that night in January of 2009.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, did the fact that you were targeted for arrest surprise you? Was there anything that you had been doing that you thought was oh, I hope, you know, I hope word of this doesn't get out to the powers that be?

SABERI: I knew that the -- that it was very likely that I was being monitored, and so when I was doing working on this book, I knew that it was legal, it was not illegal, and I was doing it very openly, and I knew the authorities must have been aware of what I was doing. Going to a country like Iran, the Islamic republic of Iran, [CHECK AUDIO] than America in general, but many people in Iran do take those risks, journalists, web bloggers, and others, and I think it's very important to impose asides to take calculated risks like that, because if there weren't these people who were taking such calculated risks, then we would know [CHECK AUDIO] governments such as Iran could work with much more impunity.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What were you accused of?

SABERI: I was accused of espionage. I was accused as using the book that I was writing [CHECK AUDIO] so many people, it's not possible that could be just for a book. I should say that espionage a pretty common charge in Iran, and I knew other journalists and so on, who had been interrogated in the past some time it is in the [CHECK AUDIO] so I assumed that if the authors had questions with my working they would just interrogate me and not accepted me to prison right away. But they didn't give me a warning, and they just sent me to prison that night. But what was really interesting is that over time, over these 100�days in prison, I came to believe that my captors, and actually they told me, basically, that they knew that I wasn't a spy. And so it made me realize or question, why do they realist all of these innocent people, and do they knowingly, falsely accuse them of things like espionage or steps to [CHECK AUDIO] do they have political modifications or [CHECK AUDIO].

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: [CHECK AUDIO] [CHECK AUDIO] gives them an extra lair of protection against repressive regimes. Did find that to be the case?

SABERI: In my case, I believed that at the time -- at that time it was before a lot of changes took place in Iran, in 2009, there were presidential elections in Iran, and then they were disputed, and then they were [CHECK AUDIO] increasing tension between Iran and America, so right now, for example, you have these two American hikers who are still in prison, they have been there since July of 2009. I think in my [CHECK AUDIO] only see me as an Iranian, and Iran does not take into account dual nationalities, so I was subject to Iranian laws. But in reality, with the American government speaking out, in Iran, they work through the Swiss embassy, because there's no American [CHECK AUDIO] because my mother's Japanese, and then also European officials, certain officials in the Middle East, somebody from the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq, and [CHECK AUDIO] Iran yawn American organizations, human rights groups, all of the -- many of these groups spoke out for me, and I was so fortunate for that, and when I realized in prison that some of these groups were speaking out for me, it really empowered me, because [CHECK AUDIO] other people are speaking out for you. And so I was very fortunate to which this attention on my case, and I think defense because of it, largely because of it, that I was released.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Roxana Saberi, she is the author of the book, between two world, she's a former NPR journalist, and she was arrested in Iran, and ultimately tried, convicted of espionage and sentenced to 8 years in prison. Now, when that sentence came down, that must have been a very low point.

SABERI: You know, it was logically seem that it should be, but for me, my first reaction was to laugh. Because by that point, I had gone through quite a personal journey, first I had lost a lot of faith, and I had lost my courage, and I was very afraid, because I was threatened that if I did not make a false confession and say I was a spy, that I could be in prison for 20 years or get the death penalty, and I was cut off from the world, my family, and I couldn't get a lawyer, which is very normal in Iran, unfortunately. And so I gave into these pressures, made the false confession, but then later, I met other women, political prisoners, who had not given in to their captors to make similar false confessions or statements. And they inspired me, and I realized that I would always be a prisoner of my own conscience if I did not recant my lies while I was still in prison, that one day, yes, my body would be freed, but my conscience would always remain behind these bars because of those lies I had said, even though a lot of people make false confessions under pressure, which I understand. So I recants that Falls confession, and my interrogate told me that from the very beginning, that he knew it was false. [CHECK AUDIO] the trial was sham, they fabricated evidence, so called evidence against me, it was a very short trial, I didn't even realize it was a trial until about halfway through it. So that's why I laughed, it was a joke to me, and I also realized because the international attention on my case, that if I only received 1 or 2�years, mac there wouldn't be as much of an outcry.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, you've mentioned several times being taken and being incarcerated in Evin prison. Tell us what that was like.

SABERI: My captors were experts at [CHECK AUDIO] and alone, especially in the beginning, they often put prisoners in solitary confinement or without access to an attorney, oftentimes you have to lie about your whereabouts [CHECK AUDIO] or the reasons for your arrest, as was in my case, and I was very afraid. I tried to find courage by remembering sayings that I learned when I was free, such as Gandhi's saying who said I do believe I'm searching only for God's truth, and I've lost all fear of map. But at the same time, I told myself but Gandhi was never in a prison in Iran, he wouldn't have been afraid, so that's why in the beginning, I lost a lot of this fear, but later on, I regained my courage that even though my body was imprisoned, I could still be free, if I did what in many ways I thought was right.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Part of regaining your courage came from [CHECK AUDIO].


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And you call them the angels of Evin.

SABERI: Yes, they were angels.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us why.

SABERI: I were that people whose only so called crime was to peacefully stand up for basic human rights. Such as freedom of speech. There were two girls who were arrested, young women, because they had gone to the local bakery and shouted we want bread. There was a student activist, this was a humanitarian worker, there were two women who were two of the 7 detained leaders of Iran's minority Baha'i faith, which is thought to be the largest non Muslim religious minority in Iran, and they are still in prison today facing what is reportedly a ten years sentence. But they were angels to me because they showed me that even under the greatest pressures, you can still control certain things, you can control your attitude, you can control what you do with your body, exercise or not, you can control your spirituality, you can control whether you're going to give in to the pressures of your captors and [CHECK AUDIO] even if that means you have to stay in prison longer. So they taught me these many lessons, which I believe are timeless and universal, even if I'm freer, because I have [CHECK AUDIO] adversities, and the lessons that I learned from them are very applicable to all of us, and are on the outside as well.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And how did you communicate with these women? Could you have conversations or did you have to be secretive about it.

SABERI: Well, after two weeks, I was taken out of solitary confinement, and put in a cell with some other women, political prisoners, and we were careful when we were speaking. [CHECK AUDIO] we didn't know maybe one person is a molar an inform apt, but I came to know and trust my cellmates for the most part, and many of them I admire greatly, they're very inspiring.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, you went on a hunger strike.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: While you were in prison. Did you think that this would get the attention of the Iranian authorities, and why did you think that? Since the way they treated you before, are I mean, they took you out of your home, they put you in prison, they went through this sham trial. So why did you think that that might really make them sit up and take notice?

SABERI: Well, I, at that point, that I went on the hunger strike, it was after my eight-year prison sentence, and I wanted to do it out of protest at the injustices that I had seen in prison, and by that point, the world was aware of my whereabouts. The Iranian authorities had announced you about seven months after my arrest they was in Evin prison. So my parents, they had come to Iran, and I was allowed to see them once a week, which I think I was very enforcement to do, which I don't think [CHECK AUDIO] the media coverage that was on the case, and so media coverage is very important. So I knew if I went on a hunger strike that my parents could announce in the media that I was on the hunger strike. And the authorities in Iran don't like that, it's very negative publicity, and in fact, they tried to deny they was on it, while their own clinic there was saying, okay, she's lost, like, 15�pounds. So I think that did help put additional pressure on the authorities. There are prisons who go on [CHECK AUDIO] on the outside, sometimes they're not very effective.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, you were released after with 100�days in prison; is that right?


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to talk about this obvious concern that you have for the people you left speech in Evin prison and in Iran, but just getting home to north Dakota, just making that trip from Evin prison to the United States of America, did that seem in a sense surreal?

SABERI: In many ways, yes. Being arrested at 50 seemed surreal to me, and I thought it was eye night mate that I just had to wake up from one day, which I realized the one point, I just had to accept the reality if I was going to trial to deal with it. And so I think after that point, after I accepted the reality of my imprisonment, after that, are the acceptance of together things that happened to me, I could take much more easily, but I was very glad to be able to sleep in a bed with my head on a pillow and be able to turn off the lights at night, talk to my parents without being told what to say or being monitored, to speak freely like I am here today. These are all freedoms that I had taken for granted before, and I value much miles an hour I ever did.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with former NPR journalist, Roxana Saberi, her new book [CHECK AUDIO] between two worlds. And I do want to talk a little bit about what must have been I deep weight that you had to wring the stories of those woman that you met in Evin prison to the rest of the world.

SABERI: Yes. Of I felt a responsibility, and also motivation, it was something I very very much wanted to do, I asked myself [CHECK AUDIO] which they deserved freedom too, is it because they [CHECK AUDIO] it was an interesting headliner, and it was a former [CHECK AUDIO] Iranian jail or something, I don't know, I don't know why I was so lucky to have the attention on my case. And therefore to be freed. And so now that I have this freedom, I feel like I want to, and I'm trying to join others, [CHECK AUDIO] who can't make their own voices heard, because when you can't speak out, you really need people to speak out for you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to talk to you a little bits about the uprisings that we've been hearing so much about, in that broad area of the world. Going back to the commitment that you have to the women who are still perhaps in Evin prison, did you also feel that you understand what is motivating people to take to the streets and cry out against repressive regimes in the Middle east, in northern Africa?

SABERI: I think well, what has happened in Egypt and Tunisia has reignited the hope of a lot of people in Iran that main change is possible even though there are a lot of differences between Egyp Tunisia, and Iran, in many ways, [CHECK AUDIO] but I think that --

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Basically, it's sort of, do you understand what's motivating the people to take to the streets? Is there a common thread that runs through these repressive regimes that is motivating people to speak out against them.

SABERI: I think so, yes. [CHECK AUDIO] in many of these countries issue there's a large youth population, in Iran, the large majority is oaf the age of 30, they're [CHECK AUDIO] they watch satellite TV news even though it's often jammed, they've travelled over seas, many of them, they're aware of universal human rights, and they want theirs observed too. Also through the use of technology, they have been able to get a lot more information. I knowledge many of these Iranians, and others, they want -- if we're talking about specific motivations, and specific demands that they have, they want a better economy, they want more choices, they want to be able to choose their leaders at regular intervals, to have free and fair [CHECK AUDIO] social freedom, they want to be free from fear. They want to feel that they have a role in their destiny, and a role in the destiny of their country.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you have any insights into why this up rising seems top affecting so many countries now?

SABERI: I think it is a combination of various factors, and, one is the large youth population in many of these kitchens, and two is the technology, they're able to share information with one another, and to get it from the outside world, and to share it with the outside world. Even though there have been many limitations on the information, especially in Iran. And journalists who try to report the truth, they get punished in Iran, Iran has the largest jail for journalists in the world. There are more than 40 bloggers and journalists who are in [CHECK AUDIO] in China. Even citizen journalists can be endangered, there was one journalist who called in to BBC -- sorry, one ordinary citizen who was called into BBC Persian who was reportedly arrested afterward. So it carries a high risk, but there were a lot of people who are willing to take these risks who try to share information with 81 another and the world.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: As you see what's helping in the rest of the Middle East, you said that this would be more difficult in Iran. I'm wondering why.

SABERI: Well, in Iran, there are certain factors that I believe it would make it difficult in certain ways, for example, it has -- the siege and revolutionary are goes, who are [CHECK AUDIO] charged with defending the ideals of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. Many of them have many interests in keeping the status quo. And many of them are less restrained to use force against peaceful protestors, and ordinary people. Iran's government is less likely to care about the good will of the west, because it's not as dependent upon the depend will of the west, and its allies such as Russia, and China are less likely to try to hold Iran accountable for human right's violation, but that said, I do believe there are peel in Iran's government, who care about the [CHECK AUDIO] otherwise, why would they be trying to control the images coming out of their country? Why would they try to defend their human rights program and record, and why would they create their own satellite TV stations in English and Arabic to try to reach the world, and it to try to their [CHECK AUDIO] I could still be in prison.

THE COURT: And it wasn't that long ago that we saw this amazing sight of protestors in the streets of Iran's capital. And are you expecting to see that again any time soon.

SABERI: I think it's very hard to predict, but it's quite possible. I don't know when. Of I think what has happened is that there are many Iranians who -- they have these hops and demands that are simmering under the surface, there's a saying in farcy called [CHECK AUDIO] they want, they as well certain demands, they want to make their voices heard, and they have not been able to, instead, they have been faced with force, violence, and brutality. So this is just increased resentment, and it's spread feelings of mistrust in the authorities. Y so I think it's only a matter of time, [CHECK AUDIO] that it's only inevitable that this movement can progress, but it's hard to say when.

THE COURT: Now, you are touring with your book, between two worlds, what do you zoo in the future for yourself? Are you gonna be going back to journalism? Are you gonna be working in some other aspect of international work? What are you gonna be doing.

SABERI: Well, I have been trying to write some articles, [CHECK AUDIO] about the had been rights situation in Iran, also I'm starting to work on another book, which is actually the book this my captors claimed was a cover fiduciary espionage [[]] I'm also trying to use some of the lessons that my cellmates taught me, some of these universal and timeless lessons and spread them to especially the youth, in ways that they can maybe apply in their own lives. I've begun to do that as well. I hope that journalism will continue to be a part of my life in the future, it's hard for me to say what's gonna happen though, [CHECK AUDIO]?

CAVANAUGH: Well, I have to thank you so much for speaking with us today.

SABERI: Thank you very much for having me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Roxana Saberi, she's the author of the book develop two worlds. [CHECK AUDIO] Days. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.

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