In 2009, while doing research for a book on Iran, Journalist Roxana Saberi was falsely accused of espionage, detained without the knowledge of her family and sentenced to eight years in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. Saberi, who was born in the United States, traces her Iranian roots to her father’s family and her Japanese heritage to her mother’s family.
In 2003 Saberi began reporting from inside Iran. US-based Feature Story News distributed her reports to Channel News Asia, South African Broadcasting, DW Radio, Vatican Radio, Radio New Zealand, Australian Independent Radio News, and others. Saberi also made occasional contributions to PBS, NPR, and Fox News.
In 2006, the Iranian authorities revoked Saberi’s press accreditation. She maintained a second press accreditation, permitting her to freelance in Iran for the BBC which was also revoked in 2006. Following the revocation of her second press accreditation, Saberi apparently cut ties with the BBC but continued to file occasional reports from the country for NPR, IPS and ABC Radio.
On January 31, 2009 Saberi was arrested on charges of espionage which she said she denied from the very outset. She suggested that the arrest was made perhaps because she was working in the country as a freelance journalist at that time. For some time Saberi’s family was unaware of her arrest.On March 3, 2009, an Iranian judiciary spokesman confirmed that Roxana Saberi had been arrested on the orders of the Islamic Revolutionary Court. Though Saberi holds both Iranian and American citizenship, Iran does not recognize dual citizenship.
Saberi speaks Persian but does not read it well, a fact that comes to light during the course of her narrative, for instance when she tries to read the order of her arrest and deciphers only the word “Evin” and understands the dreaded prison is her destination.
On March 10 2009, a few international news organizations wrote an open letter to the Iranian government, to allow independent access to Saberi. Signatories of the letter included high profile personalities like the President of NPR President Vivian Schiller, President of ABC News David Westin, Wall Street Journal Editor-in-chief Robert Thomson, John Stack of Fox News and world editor at the BBC, Jon Williams.
The book is a memoir, and Saberi acknowledges that “not all of the dialogue from (her) imprisonment is repeated verbatim.” She says she tried to make the reconstructions as accurate as possible, relying only on memory in the absence of a pen and paper during imprisonment.
Saberi quotes Saeb Tabrizi, a 17th century Persian poet at the start of her memoir,“When a bird realizes that it is other than the cage, it is already free.” There is a recurring theme of mental strength and the power of the mind throughout the book. Narrating her interaction with other women in her cell, the significance of these words becomes clear. The book is dedicated to Saberi’s cellmates and “all other brave souls standing up for human rights, freedom and dignity”.
As a method of repressing any form of opposition, cultural or political, the Iranian government under Ahmadinejad arrested innumerable people. Saberi describes the inmates and prisoners at Evin as mainly political prisoners arrested for speaking out against the government.
Saberi puts her experiences in larger context of Iran, the modus operandi of the Ahmadinejad government and stubborn refusal to let hope die within the dreary concrete and iron of Evin.
Saberi’s memoir is not just a grim account of her imprisonment. She describes everyday activities and light-hearted moments among herself and her sister inmates. On Tuesdays, she recalls, detainees were allowed to buy a few snacks and raw vegetables. Detainees also paid for utilities like shampoo and underwear. She mentions a conversation with one cellmate who joked about her imprisonment, saying after living for 30 years struggling to pay for water and electricity, Evin provided these amenities to her for free.
In one interaction between her parents, Javan the chief interrogator urges Saberi’s parents to withdraw statements from the media that Saberi had “confessed” to espionage under pressure, his argument being that it “paint(ed) a bad picture of Evin.” Saberi’s recollections of what occurs with her and her cellmates and the justifications of the Iranian prison officials sound incredulous more often than not.
The country is notorious for being one of the most repressive as far as freedom of the press is concerned and Saberi is not the first journalist imprisoned in Evin under charges of espionage and anti-government activities. The most notorious case was that of Iranian-Canadian journalist, Zahra Kazemi, was killed after being arrested for taking images of some prisoners’ families outside Evin. Authorities at Evin tried to cover-up her case and later claimed she died from head-injuries as a result of an accident. A doctor named Shahram Azam however, who had examined Kazemi’s corpse fled Iran to expose his discoveries said Kazemi had been raped, her nose had been broken and her skull fractured.
In her narrative, Saberi changes the identities of inmates for their protection, while others are mentioned using initials. A reader wouldn’t feel the need to fact-check or feel the absence of ‘reliable’ sources even though most of it is from memory. Previous reports about censorship and treatment of political prisoners and journalists in Iran under Ahmadinejad’s regime tend to corroborate Saberi’s account.
What remains in the mind even after the book is closed shut is Saberi’s quote “Someday, I would like to return to Iran. I hope that day will be … a time when everywhere [in Iran] will be safe and prosperous, and we will have no political prisoners.