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Iran: Jailed Iranian-American Scholar Faces Coercion

Arbitrary Arrest of Haleh Esfandiari Coincides With a Week of Crackdowns

Iran should immediately release Iranian-American academic Haleh Esfandiari and allow her to return to the United States, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch expressed concern that Iranian authorities have subjected Esfandiari to arbitrary detention and coercive interrogation.

On May 8, officials at the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence summoned Esfandiari for questioning, arrested her without warrant or explanation, and transferred her to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where Human Rights Watch has documented cases of torture and detainee abuse. Prior to Esfandiari’s arrest, ministry officials had repeatedly interrogated her in their offices on Africa Street in Tehran, and subsequently in their main building on Khaje Abdollah Ansari Street.

Esfandiari, who is head of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, had traveled to Iran in December to visit her ailing mother. On December 30, prior to her planned departure from Iran, armed and masked men stopped her taxi and seized both her Iranian and US passports. Since December, Iranian authorities have failed to replace her passport and instead have subjected her to repeated and protracted interrogation sessions.

In a statement on May 10, the Wilson Center said that during interrogations, Esfandiari “was pressured to make a false confession or to falsely implicate the Wilson Center in activities in which it had no part.”

“President Ahmadinejad is desperately trying to discredit his government’s many critics as American pawns,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Haleh Esfandiari is a well-known advocate of dialogue between Iranian and American scholars, and the Iranian authorities are trying to coerce her into making a false confession to incriminate Iranian writers and activists.”

Human Rights Watch said the Iranian government’s mistreatment of Esfandiari recalls that of Ramin Jahanbegloo, a Canadian-Iranian philosopher whom Iranian authorities arbitrarily arrested in April 2006. After nearly four months of detention and interrogation, Jahanbegloo “confessed” that his scholarly works had contributed to the planning of a “velvet revolution.”

Iran’s decision to increase its pressure on Esfandiari by detaining her comes at a time when the authorities have also escalated repressive campaigns against Iranian women’s right activists and student leaders.

On May 9, three students from Tehran Polytechnic University – Pouya Mahmoudian, Majid Sheikhpour and Majid Tavakoli – responded to a summons to appear before a Revolutionary Court in Tehran. Authorities then arrested and transferred them to Evin prison. At least four other students from Tehran Polytechnic University are also arbitrarily detained in Evin. All are active in student organizations. None has been charged with any offense.

Student and women’s rights activist, Zeynab Peyghambarzadeh, is also being held in Evin prison. She was among the 33 women arrested by security forces on March 4 when they gathered before a branch of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court where other women’s rights activists were being prosecuted. On May 7, authorities detained Peyghambarzadeh for failing to provide the bail the court recently set in relation to her pending case. She is currently being held in Unit 3 (youth section) of Evin prison. When Peyghambarzadeh’s father and lawyer arrived at the Revolutionary Court on May 8 to put up her bail, court authorities prevented them from entering the court.

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