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Iran: No Decision On Detained Iranian-Americans After Inquiry

By Golnaz Esfandiari

August 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian judicial authorities say they have completed their investigations into the case of two detained Iranian-American academics, Haleh Esfandiari and Kian Tajbakhsh, who are facing security charges.

The official IRNA news agency quoted Tehran Deputy Prosecutor Hassan Haddad on August 12 as saying some "written work" remains to be done in the case and that then a decision will be made on their fate.

Possible Release?

It is not clear whether the end of Iran's investigation into the case of Haleh Esfandiari, the head of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; and Kian Tajbakhsh, a consultant with the Open Society Institute, will lead to their release.

Officials have been quite vague about the case and Hadad has not explained what he means by "written work."

There is some speculation that the two academics could be forced into signing a written statement or a false confession in order to be released from prison.

Former political prisoners have said upon release that they had been under pressure to write long accounts about their activities, sign false confessions, or commit themselves not to get involved in activities officials see as being against the country's national security.

A number of people in the past held on security charges have been released after making "confessions" that were often aired on state television.

Imprisoned At Evin

Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh appeared on Iranian television in July in a program that -- according to Iranian officials -- showed that the two are linked to a U.S. plot to destabilize Iran's Islamic establishment.

Human-rights groups and relatives of the two Iranian-Americans strongly condemned the program and said any statements that were given were coerced.

Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh have been in Tehran's notorious Evin prison since their arrest in May.

The Iranian government has restricted access to them and little is know about their conditions.
An Iranian rights group, the Student Committee of Human Rights Reporters, said in an August 11 statement that both of the scholars are facing difficult physical and psychological conditions in prison. The two are reportedly being held in solitary confinement with no personal contact with their families or lawyers.

The situation has led to serious concern over their fate and calls for their release by rights groups, the United States, and a number of academics and politicians.

Friendly Support

Several websites have been launched in their support. One is freekian.org, which includes a petition for the release of Tajbakhsh, photos, news, and articles about his arrest.
The website has videos by his friends and colleagues including Alex Schwartz, the chairman of the Urban Policy Analysis and Management Program at the Milan School of Management, where Tajbakhsh used to work.

"It's shocking what has happened, I find it particularly mind-boggling that he -- who is perfectly transparent in everything that he did -- that he who was working, actually, for the Iranian government on many occasions, yet has these accusations made against him," he said. "It defies reason, it defies any common sense."

The American Islamic Congress has created freehaleh.org in support of Esfandiari. On the site is a petition for her release and news and information about her case.

Nasser Weddady is the outreach director for the Hands Across the Middle East Support Alliance, which is the American Islamic Congress's civil-rights initiative.

Weddady tells RFE/RL that the arrest of the Iranian-Americans -- including peace activist Ali Shakeri and the authorities' refusal to let Radio Farda broadcaster Parnaz Azima leave Iran -- is a "huge mistake" on the part of the Iranian government.

Pawns In A Hard-Line Battle?

Weddady said "It is very important for the Islamic Republic of Iran to understand that by holding a 67-year-old grandmother and an academic and a businessman and a reporter, it is doing itself immeasurable damage in the eyes of the international community because ultimately the question that will be asked is: 'why is such a strong country like Iran afraid of a 67-year-old grandmother?' It is a question that a lot of us have been asking ourselves since her arrest."

There has been lots of speculation about the reasons behind the arrest of the Iranian-Americans, including that they're the victims of the increasingly tense relations between Tehran and Washington.

But Weddady believes that the issue has to be put in the context of internal Iranian politics and attempts by hard-liners to justify further curtailing freedom in the country.

"It is in the hands of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, just to pick up the phone, make a phone call and ask for [Esfandiari's] release because this is obviously a political issue that can be solved only by the political leadership," he said.

On August 12, Haddad said that the case of Shakeri, who is with the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at the University of California-Irvine, is not linked to the cases of Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh.

He did not mention Radio Farda broadcaster Azima, who has been barred from leaving Iran.

Azima's U.S. passport was confiscated upon her arrival at Tehran's airport on January 25, where she flew to visit her mother.

She has been charged with working for Radio Farda and spreading propaganda against the state.
Azima has denied the charges and emphasized that she has always adhered to the journalistic principles of being impartial and objective.

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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