Roxana Saberi Photo by Tommy Giglio
Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholars always impress, but Roxana Saberi, who left the United States for Tehran in 2003 as a foreign correspondent, has become an international celebrity and a face for human rights in Iran.
The former political prisoner, released from Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison in May 2009, sat down for a Q&A luncheon at the Union League Club in Chicago on 13 April. Her national tour served to promote her book, Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran , published 30 March. Saberi recalled the many lessons she learned from fellow female political prisoners, the events that led to her freedom, and her life before Evin.
After the Iranian government revoked her press pass in 2006, Saberi stayed in the country and began writing a book for American readers that profiled the diversity of its people.
Eleven days after U.S. President Barack Obama’s inauguration, she was kidnapped, questioned, and detained in Evin Prison for 100 days, accused of using her book as a cover to conduct hundreds of interviews with Iranians and spy for the Central Intelligence Agency.
Using nonviolent “white torture” (extreme sensory deprivation) techniques, Saberi’s interrogators forced her into making a false confession by guaranteeing her freedom if she admitted to espionage. Without knowing she would be released in a matter of days, Saberi recanted, setting in motion a sham trial that resulted in an eight-year sentence, her own hunger strike, and a successful appeal.
“Unfortunately, a lot of Iranians are falsely accused of crimes, including espionage,” she said. “It made me wonder, do they knowingly falsely accuse people to tighten their grip on society and to silence people?”
Road to Iran
In Evin, Saberi met many of these silenced political prisoners and members of marginalized groups like the Baha’is. Their stories strengthened her will to recant.
“Sometimes through suffering we can have an opportunity to become stronger,” she said. “And even when you’re imprisoned, you still have power to control your attitude.”
Saberi’s road to Iran included a stop at the Miss America competition, where she finished in the top 10. Her talent was playing the piano, a gift she would later put to use as a diversion while in solitary confinement at Evin by tapping her fingers against the wall. She used her scholarship money to attend Northwestern University’s Medill Graduate School of Journalism, and furthered her education with the help of a 1999-2000 Ambassadorial Scholarship, obtaining a second master’s degree in international relations at the University of Cambridge in England. She has written for ABC Radio, Feature Story News, the BBC, NPR, PRI, and Fox News.
“I felt like I had the journalism background, but I didn’t have the foreign relations background,” she said. “My aim was to become a foreign correspondent.”
For now, Saberi’s future plans are unsure. Since her return from Iran, she has completed her book and has been relaxing with her parents in Fargo, North Dakota, as well as participating in a number of human rights gatherings after the Iranian election. She cowrote a film, No One Knows About Persian Cats , with her longtime boyfriend and award-winning Iranian-Kurdish director, Bahman Ghobadi. While Saberi hopes to eventually return to Iran, she says she has been too outspoken to ensure a safe visit.
“Often I get worried about the Iranian people,” Saberi says, “but I know they’re very courageous, and I admire them. In the long run, they can prevail.”
Written for Reconnections
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