Tuesday, September 18, 2007
RFE/RL correspondent Parnaz Azima has left Tehran after being held in Iran as a virtual prisoner for eight months.September 18, 2007 (RFE/RL)
Azima, a dual national of Iran and the United States, had been prevented from leaving the country after her passport was confiscated on January 25 in Tehran during a trip to visit her hospitalized mother (see timeline). She was finally able to collect her Iranian passport on September 4, but still encountered problems leaving the country.
RFE/RL President Jeff Gedmin welcomed news of Azima's departure for Washington, saying: "For eight long months, Parnaz's colleagues at RFE/RL have been waiting for the day when she will be a free person again. We are happy Parnaz can finally be reunited with her family and see her newborn grandchild for the first time."
Gedmin said he remains concerned, however, about the criminal charges against Azima, which have not been lifted.
"If it was an ordinary case and not a political and security one, then it would have been [closed] within four months," Azima's lawyer, Mohammad Hossein Aghassi, told Radio Farda today.
"But since it's a special case with security and political implications -- and it has been mentioned that the accused, meaning Azima, has a special situation in international relations -- we cannot make a [definitive] prediction about it, but we have to leave it to future [developments] in international relations and political issues."
Azima was charged by Iran's Prosecutor's Security Office on May 15 with acting against national security and spreading propaganda about the Iranian state through her work for Radio Farda, the Persian broadcasting service operated jointly by U.S.-funded RFE/RL and Voice of America. Azima rejected the charges, saying Radio Farda's mission is disseminating news and information, not political activism.
While working for RFE/RL, Azima has produced numerous programs on Persian literature, modern Iranian history, and the status in Iran of women, ethnic and religious minorities, the media, and other aspects of human rights. She has also translated more than 30 books from English and French into Persian, including Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man And The Sea" and "Love In The Time Of Cholera" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Azima's bail was eventually set for around $550,000, considered to be unusually high. A court accepted an appraisal of Azima's mother's house for that amount. In a telephone interview with RFE/RL on June 6, Azima said she could move around within Iran, but likened her ordeal to that of a "prisoner who is in a larger prison," with no idea about the length of incarceration.
In an August 26 interview with Radio Farda, Azima said she was told her case could be resolved if she resigned from Radio Farda, where she has worked since 1998. She refused to do so.
The cases of Azima and three others being held by Iran received international attention. Human-rights groups held vigils for Azima, as well as for three other Iranian-Americans held since May -- consultant Kian Tajbakhsh, scholar Haleh Esfandiari, and peace activist Ali Shakeri. The U.S. State Department called for their release, and prominent U.S. lawmakers issued statements of support. International media also picked up the story.
Esfandiari was finally able to leave Iran on September 3. Tajbakhsh and Shakeri continue to be imprisoned. Tajbakhsh told reporters from Evin prison on September 11 that he expected to be freed "soon."
In his statement today, RFE/RL President Jeff Gedmin expressed his thanks to everyone who had kept a focus on Azima's plight. He said RFE/RL joined the voices of all those "demanding freedom for jailed Iranian-Americans and Iranian prisoners of conscience."
Possible Motives Behind Detentions
Analysts say the detentions of Azima and the others were most likely designed to muffle critics of the Iranian regime, both inside and outside the country. The detentions came amid a broader crackdown in Iran on dissenting voices, such as rights activists and students. Bill Samii, a former RFE/RL analyst on Iran who's now with the Center for Naval Analyses in the United States, says that "the message has been sent...that if you cooperate with the United States in any kind of activity that could be labeled as antiregime, then you face imprisonment at the very least."
Faraj Sarkuhi, an exiled Iranian journalist, agrees, saying one of the goals has been to send a message to Iran's critics to remain silent or face possible arrest.
Samii speculates that Iranian authorities may have decided that they have received "maximum value" out of the detentions and realized that holding Azima and the others was no longer of any benefit.