Family and colleagues have welcomed the release on bail from an Iranian prison of Iranian-American Haleh Esfandiari and called for a quick return to her family in the United States. Esfandiari is the director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington who has spent the past three months in jail. She was freed on Tuesday (August 21) on bail of 3 billion rials ($320,000).
Esfandiari appeared tired as she emerged from three months at Tehran's Evin prison. But she expressed joy when asked by Iranian state television in front of the prison gates how she felt:
"A sensation of happiness."
Esfandiari said she was treated well during her time in prison: "The women who worked in the prison were truly remarkable women, and very educated, and had wonderful manners, and we had great interaction. They were very kind and very patient. They embody the exact qualities that someone in such a position in a prison requires."
Her release came about a week after judiciary officials said investigations were completed into her case and the case of another detained Iranian-American -- scholar Kian Tajbakhsh.
It is still unclear whether Tajbakhsh -- who is a consultant with the Open Society Institute -- might be also released.
Both have been charged since their May detentions with security-related crimes.
On Tuesday (August 21), Iran's ISNA news agency quoted an unnamed judiciary official as saying vaguely that Tajbakhsh would be released on bail "in a few days."
There was no word on the fate of Ali Shakeri, a peace activist with dual Iranian-American citizenship who is also jailed in Iran. Authorities have also refused to allow a fourth Iranian-American, Radio Farda broadcaster Parnaz Azima, to leave Iran. They have charged Azima with working for Radio Farda and spreading propaganda against the Iranian state.
Azima told RFE/RL today that she's delighted at the release of Esfandiari: "I'm very happy that Haleh Esfandiari was freed from prison, although it was on heavy bail. But [it's great] that she is no longer in prison. On whether this will have an impact on my case, I can say that so far there have been no changes -- I have no news. I've been in Iran now for about eight months. The way [authorities] treat me is that they pay no attention to me -- meaning that they don't answer or do anything."
Some observers are convinced that these arrests -- along with an intensified crackdown on students, women's rights activists, and critics -- are part of an attempt by the Iranian government to create fear and intimidation and discourage contact between Iranian intellectuals and the outside world.
Snippets of interviews with Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh appeared in a television program in July that Iranian officials claimed proved that the two academics were involved in a U.S. plot to destabilize Iran's Islamic establishment.
Rights groups denounced that program and suggested the two had been forced to make the statements under duress.
Esfandiari's lawyer, Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, told Radio Farda on Tuesday (August 21) that her case remains open. But Ebadi is optimistic that Esfandiari will be acquitted:
"Right now, from the judiciary's point of view, the case is open. But she will be out of prison until the day of the court hearing, and I'm sure that she will be acquitted because I'm completely [convinced] of her innocence. The three months she spent in solitary confinement was against the law."
Iranian officials have not said whether Esfandiari will be allowed to leave Iran. Her husband, Shaul Bakhash, a professor of history at George Mason University, has expressed hope that she will be allowed to rejoin her family in the United States.
It is unclear what led to Esfandiari's release or whether international pressure played a role in Iranian officials' decision to let her out on bail. A number of human rights groups and U.S. politicians have called on Iran to release the detained Iranian-Americans and allow them to leave the country. Former U.S. Congressman Lee Hamilton heads the Wilson Center, where Esfandiari works. He is quoted today by "The New York Times" as saying that Esfandiari's release came two weeks after Iran's supreme leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) responded to a June 29 letter appealing for her freedom.
Hamilton said his letter did not refer to any tensions between Iran and the United States, and instead framed the request in humanitarian and religious terms.
The Wilson Center has said in an Internet statement that it hopes for "the safe and quick return of Kian Tajbakhsh, Parnaz Azima, and Ali Shakeri, who have also been unjustly detained in Iran."
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