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Iranian-American Scholar Welcomes Release On Bail

A television shot of Esfandiari in front of Evin prison after her release (AFP) August 22, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Family and colleagues are welcoming the release of Iranian-American Haleh Esfandiari from a Tehran prison, and are calling for her quick return to her family in the United States.

Esfandiari, who heads the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, had been detained on security charges since May. She was released on the evening of 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 how she felt by Iranian state television in front of the prison gates, and said that she was treated with respect while in prison.

The Wilson Center in Washington praised Esfandiari's release, but also called for "the safe and quick return of Kian Tajbakhsh, Parnaz Azima, and Ali Shakeri, who have also been unjustly detained in Iran."

"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," Esfandiari said.

Esfandiari's lawyer, Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, had previously warned of the harsh conditions at Evin prison, where Ebadi herself was once detained.

Others Awaiting Release

Esfandiari's 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 were detained in May and charged with security-related crimes.

On 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.

Three Iranian-Americans facing charges in Iran: Esfandiari, Tajbaksh, and Azima

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 by Esfandiari's release. "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," Azima said.

"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."

Fear and Intimidation

Some observers are convinced that these arrests -- along with an intensified crackdown on students, women's rights activists, and critics of the Iranian leadership-- 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 Ebadi told Radio Farda on August 21 that her case remains open. But, Ebadi said, Esfandiari "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."

"I really regret that they held a 68-year-old lady, who is not in very good health, for 3 1/2 months in solitary confinement, without any acceptable reason," Ebadi added.

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.

The Wilson Center, where Esfandiari works, is headed by former U.S. Congressman Lee Hamilton. 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."

Radio Farda's Parnaz Azima

Radio Farda's Parnaz Azima
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.