TEHRAN, Iran — A detained Iranian-American academic was suddenly released from a notorious Tehran prison Tuesday after spending months behind bars on charges of endangering Iranian national security — allegations her family vehemently denies.
Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, had been jailed in Evin prison since early May after months of interrogation. Her 93-year-old mother used the deed to her Tehran apartment to post bail, relatives said.
“I’m very happy. It was unexpected. I thank all those who made efforts to make it possible for me to go home,” Esfandiari told Iranian television. The footage showed her walking out of the prison and meeting family members in a car on a nearby street.
Mohammad Shadabi, an official at the Tehran prosecutor’s office, said Esfandiari had been released on $333,000 bail, but he could not say whether she would be allowed to leave Iran.
Esfandiari, 67, was detained Dec. 30 after three masked men holding knives threatened to kill her on her way to Tehran’s airport to fly back to the U.S., the Wilson Center has said. The men took her U.S. and Iranian passports, making her unable to leave the country, the center said.
For several weeks, she was interrogated by authorities for up to eight hours a day about the activities of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, the Washington-based foundation said.
Iran charged Esfandiari in May. Since then, her only contact with her family has been brief telephone calls to her mother in which she said she was under stress and was having trouble receiving medication for her health conditions, said former Rep. Lee Hamilton, head of the Wilson Center.
The Iranian Intelligence Ministry had accused Esfandiari and her organization of trying to set up networks of Iranians with the ultimate goal of creating a “soft revolution” in Iran. Her husband, Shaul Bakhash, and the Wilson Center denied the allegations.
Esfandiari told Iranian TV after her release that her jailers were polite and she had recently been allowed to read newspapers and watch television.
“Their treatment was remarkably good. I had a big room. It was a bright room with window. They had made it possible for me to go out for a walk,” she said.
Esfandiari’s daughter, Haleh Bakhash, said she spoke with her mother after her release and that she was elated to be out of prison.
Bakhash said she believed the terms of Esfandiari’s release prevent her from leaving Iran but that she was not under house arrest or any form of detention. “I am guardedly optimistic that within a couple of weeks she will be able to join us,” said Bakhash, who lives in Washington.
The White House called Esfandiari’s release “welcome news.”
“There was no reason for her to be held. The other Americans still being held should be released as well,” spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in Canada, where President Bush was attending a summit.
Iran has charged three other Iranian-Americans for security-related offenses: Parnaz Azima, a journalist for U.S.-funded Radio Farda; Kian Tajbakhsh, an urban planning consultant with the Soros Foundation’s Open Society Institute; and Ali Shakeri, a founding board member of the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at the University of California, Irvine.
Shakeri and Tajbakhsh are in prison; Azima is free but barred from leaving Iran.
Point of contention
The detentions have become another point of contention between the U.S. and Iran. Washington also accuses Iran of arming Shiite Muslim militants in Iraq and seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran denies those claims, and blames Washington for Iraq’s instability.
Hamilton said he was unsure what prompted Esfandiari’s release but added he had recently received a written response from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s office after sending him a letter appealing for her freedom.
In the response, Khamenei said he was pleased that Hamilton had expressed a desire for peace and justice and added he had given instructions to “deal with this issue” and that “necessary measures” would be taken, according to Hamilton.
Hamilton, who has not had direct contact with Esfandiari, said he did not believe the charges against her had been dismissed.
At the couple’s home in Potomac, Md., Shaul Bakhash said he hopes his wife’s release means she will be allowed to return to the U.S.
“I feel extremely good. It has been a very anxious several months,” he said.
© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.