Journalist Roxana Saberi, who marked her 32nd birthday in prison, was recently in the Bay Area promoting her new book and encouraging support for the three UC Berkeley graduates who are being held in Iran as spies.
"It's such a pity that they've been held since last July," she said.
Saberi has a good idea about the ordeal the three UC Berkeley graduates may be going through in a prison in Iran. Sarah Shourd, Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer were arrested July 31, 2009, accused of being spies. Their families say the three had been hiking near the Iraq-Iran border and got lost.
Roxana spent nearly five months in the same prison earlier in 2009.
"I was living in Iran for about six years and I was working on a book about Iran, and I was almost done with that book, and I was getting ready to leave the country when on the morning of Jan. 31 of last year, I was arrested," she recalled. "They wanted me to say the book was a cover for espionage for the United States and of course it was not. I told them it was not."
She said the men who came to her apartment demanded to know why she was interviewing so many different Iranians.
No one knew she had been taken away or what happened to her for months.
"I knew the history of Evin Prison, the most notorious prison in Iran where many political prisoners are held. So, I was very scared," she recalled.
She later realized she suffered something called "white torture" that is all psychological and does not leave a mark.
"I was taken to a solitary confinement cell. It was made for one person. By holding out my arms, I could almost touch the walls," she said. "The floor was cement, carpet thin, and ratty, and I was supposed to sleep on some blankets. There was a toilet that didn't work and one light that was on for 24 hours."
The interrogations went on for many hours over many days. She finally broke and gave a false confession that she was a spy.
"I was too afraid to recant while I was in custody because if I recant when nobody knows where I am, my captors will be enraged and then they won't release me," she said.
Saberi's captors moved her out of solitary confinement and into a cell with other women after the fake confession, but some of those women refused to give false confessions.
"I thought they were very strong. I was a lot weaker than I thought I would ever be under pressure and I felt even more ashamed at what I'd done, and I decided to recant while I was still in prison," she said.
Saberi's parents finally found out where she was and the Iranian government acknowledged she was in prison.
"They had Iranian passports, so they could come to Iran and see me," she explained.
They launched a campaign around the world to fight for her freedom. No one believed the spy charges.
"If you talk to Iranian officials, they themselves don't even believe the charges leveled against her, but she's a pawn in this game that they're trying to play vis-a-vis the United States," said Iran Karim Sadjapour in 2009.
Her imprisonment happened about the same time President Obama was trying to start a dialogue with Iranian President Ahmadinejad about the country's nuclear program. The effort to free Saberi was joined by the broadcast networks she freelanced for including ABC, NPR and the BBC. The State Department was involved and the campaign worked.
But, her guilt about the false confession wound up costing her.
"I later found out that I recanted just two days after the Iranian authorities publicly announced they wanted to release me in days. But, instead of releasing me, they sent me to trial and sentenced me to eight years in prison," she said.
She went on a hunger strike that alarmed her parents. But, the constant publicity helped to set her free May 11, 2009 and she walked out of prison into the arms of her family thin, exhausted and suffering emotional scars.
But, she had a new purpose, to help other political prisoners like the UC Berkeley graduates being held in Evin Prison.
"Now that I'm free, I have a responsibility to join many others to use the freedom we have to speak out for those who are struggling to make their own voices heard," she said.
Saberi is encouraging people to log on to the freethehikers.org website and get involved with the campaign to win their release.