Friday, May 18, 2007

Free Haleh Esfandiari

Dr. Haleh Esfandiari is a respected Iranian American scholar and the Director of the Middle East Program the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. For the past 10 days, she has been held in Evin Prison in the northern part of Tehran, Iran. Her ordeal actually began at the end of 2006, when she was robbed at knifepoint by three men while on the way to the airport after visiting her 93 year old mother in Tehran. Her U.S. and Iranian passports were stolen along with her baggage, she was not allowed to leave Iran, and her application for new travel documents was turned down. Instead, she was held under house arrest and interrogated over a period of several weeks by authorities from the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence. On 8 May 2007, apparently after continual refusals to make false confessions of anti-government activities, Dr. Esfandiari, who is 67, was taken to Evin Prison, which is a notorious detention point for political prisoners dating back to the pre-revolutionary days of Reza Shah Pahlavi and SAVAK, the Shah's secret police. She has not been formally charged with any crime, although allegations of spying have appeared in the Iranian press; she has not been allowed visitors or any outside communication except two phone calls to her mother; and has so far been denied access to legal representation.

Since her imprisonment there have been numerous bipartisan calls for Dr. Esfandiari's release by U.S. officials and legislators, including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Barbara Mikulski, Benjamin L. Cardin, and Condoleeza Rice. Most recently, Shirin Ebadi, Iranian human rights activist and 2003 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, offered her services as Dr. Esfandiari's attorney, but her request was refused by Iranian authorities. About a week ago, a web-based "Free Haleh" campaign was launched by the American Islamic Congress in conjunction with Ibn Khaldoun Center in Cairo, the Initiative for Inclusive Security in Washington, and the Kuwaiti Economic Society. The site hosts an on-line petition/letter writing campaign calling for her immediate release. Amnesty International has also established an on-line petition calling for release of Dr. Esfandiari and other women activists held in Iran. Another petition campaign has been launched by Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME). I urge anyone reading this to take the time to investigate her case through web-based or other media coverage ("Free Haleh" is a good place to start, as well as Wikipedia's Haleh Esfandiari entry, or just search the web with her name), and to sign one or more of the petitions calling for her release.

My thanks to Laila Lalami for providing my first alert about this case.

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