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Family hears little from scholar Iran detains

Published May 27, 2007


POTOMAC, Md. - The only contact Haleh Esfandiari's family has with her are short phone calls from one of Iran's most notorious prisons. They usually come in the evening to her 93-year-old mother's home in Tehran. Esfandiari says she is fine, sometimes asks about her grandchildren, but is always cut off after a minute.

Those are the few clues about Esfandiari's fate since the 67-year-old scholar was arrested in Iran in early May, accused of trying to undermine and topple Iran's hard-line government by opening up the country to the West.

Esfandiari, an Iranian-American who holds dual citizenship, works on Middle East issues at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

Her family has heard nothing from the Iranian government, and lawyers and Esfandiari's mother have been barred from visiting her. Back in the Washington area, her husband and daughter worry about conditions at Tehran's Evin Prison, where late-night, blindfolded interrogations in stark cells are said to take place.

"There have been much stronger men in their 20s and 30s who have broken under this process, " said her husband, Shaul Bakhash, a Middle East scholar at George Mason University. "So I worry a great deal."

Two other Iranian-Americans, journalist Parnaz Azima and Kian Tajbakhsh, a consultant for George Soros' Open Society Institute, have been recently detained or prevented from leaving Iran as the hard-line government cracks down on nongovernmental organizations. A former FBI agent, Robert Levinson, disappeared in Iran in March.

On Thursday, President Bush denounced the detentions, saying the country's actions were "not acceptable behavior." The Wilson Center has called for Esfandiari's release, as have several academic groups and American presidential candidates. Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer who won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, has agreed to represent her.

Family members said allegations Esfandiari sought to overthrow Iran's government seem absurd.

"It's total nonsense, " said her daughter, Haleh Bakhash. "My mother's work has always been purely academic. She has never been a political person at all."

Shaul Bakhash met Esfandiari in the early 1960s when both were reporters at the Iranian newspaper Kayhan. The couple and their daughter left the country around the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

[Last modified May 27, 2007, 01:12:29]

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