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RFE/RL Journalist Azima Arrives In United States

Parnaz Azima with RFE/RL President Jeff Gedmin in Washington (RFE/RL) September 19, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- RFE/RL correspondent Parnaz Azima has arrived in the United States after being held in Iran as a virtual prisoner for eight months.

Azima, a dual national of Iran and the United States, had been prevented from leaving the country after her passport was confiscated on January 25 in Tehran during a trip to visit her hospitalized mother (see timeline).

She was finally able to collect her Iranian passport on September 4, but still encountered problems leaving the country.

RFE/RL President Jeff Gedmin welcomed news of Azima's departure for Washington, saying: "For eight long months, Parnaz's colleagues at RFE/RL have been waiting for the day when she will be a free person again. We are happy Parnaz can finally be reunited with her family and see her newborn grandchild for the first time."

While two are freed, three other Americans are still being held or are missing in Iran. Read about their cases here.

Gedmin said he remains concerned, however, about the criminal charges against Azima, which have not been lifted.

Azima was charged by Iran's Prosecutor's Security Office on May 15 with acting against national security and spreading propaganda about the Iranian state through her work for Radio Farda, the Persian broadcasting service operated jointly by U.S.-funded RFE/RL and Voice of America. Azima rejected the charges, saying Radio Farda's mission is disseminating news and information, not political activism.

"If it was an ordinary case and not a political and security one, then it would have been [closed] within four months," Azima's lawyer, Mohammad Hossein Aqasi, told Radio Farda. "But since it's a special case with security and political implications -- and it has been mentioned that the accused, meaning Azima, has a special situation in international relations -- we cannot make a [definitive] prediction about it, but we have to leave it to future [developments] in international relations and political issues."

Aqasi said he believes the case is not being looked at inside Iran from a judicial perspective, but from a "completely political perspective."

"The objective is to hold this case open to use it as a preventive measure in regard to Ms. Azima's [involvement] in the production of her news reports," Aqasi said. "Proverbially speaking, it is indeed the sword of Damocles."

Aqasi said Azima will be required to return to Iran once a date is set for her case. He said she faces from three months to one year in prison, although the court could issue a suspended sentence or order her to pay a fine.

Noted As A Translator

While working for RFE/RL, Azima has produced numerous programs on Persian literature, modern Iranian history, and the status in Iran of women, ethnic and religious minorities, the media, and other aspects of human rights. She has also translated more than 30 books from English and French into Persian, including Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man And The Sea" and "Love In The Time Of Cholera" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Azima's bail was eventually set for around $550,000, considered to be unusually high. A court accepted an appraisal of Azima's mother's house for that amount. In a telephone interview with RFE/RL on June 6, Azima said she could move around within Iran, but likened her ordeal to that of a "prisoner who is in a larger prison," with no idea about the length of incarceration.

In an August 26 interview with Radio Farda, Azima said she was told her case could be resolved if she resigned from Radio Farda, where she has worked since 1998. She refused to do so.

International Spotlight

The cases of Azima and three others being held by Iran received international attention. Human-rights groups held vigils for Azima, as well as for three other Iranian-Americans held since May -- consultant Kian Tajbakhsh, scholar Haleh Esfandiari, and peace activist Ali Shakeri. The U.S. State Department called for their release, and prominent U.S. lawmakers issued statements of support. International media also picked up the story.

Esfandiari was finally able to leave Iran on September 3. Tajbakhsh and Shakeri continue to be imprisoned. Tajbakhsh told reporters from Evin prison on September 11 that he expected to be freed "soon."

In his statement today, RFE/RL President Jeff Gedmin expressed his thanks to everyone who had kept a focus on Azima's plight. He said RFE/RL joined the voices of all those "demanding freedom for jailed Iranian-Americans and Iranian prisoners of conscience."

Possible Motives Behind Detentions

Analysts say the detentions of Azima and the others were most likely designed to muffle critics of the Iranian regime, both inside and outside the country. The detentions came amid a broader crackdown in Iran on dissenting voices, such as rights activists and students. Bill Samii, a former RFE/RL analyst on Iran who's now with the Center for Naval Analyses in the United States, says that "the message has been sent...that if you cooperate with the United States in any kind of activity that could be labeled as antiregime, then you face imprisonment at the very least."

Faraj Sarkuhi, an exiled Iranian journalist, agrees, saying one of the goals has been to send a message to Iran's critics to remain silent or face possible arrest.

Samii speculates that Iranian authorities may have decided that they have received "maximum value" out of the detentions and realized that holding Azima and the others was no longer of any benefit.



By RFE/RL President Jeffrey Gedmin
From "The Washington Post," September 19

Our reporter Parnaz Azima finally made it out of Iran yesterday. Iranian authorities, who had blocked her exit from the country since January, returned her passport two weeks ago but then proceeded to create a series of bureaucratic obstacles that prevented her from returning to her family and colleagues. Azima, who has U.S. and Iranian dual citizenship, works for Radio Farda, the Persian-language broadcast service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the congressionally funded broadcasters based in Prague.

Azima is one of Iran's best-known literary translators. She is famous for her translations of Ernest Hemingway's works. In January, she traveled to Tehran to visit her ailing 94-year-old mother and unwittingly became ensnared in a larger game being played by Iran's regime. Its aim is simple: to intimidate dissidents at home while pressuring the United States to refrain from supporting Iranian civil society.

Consider the way Tehran is attempting to put Radio Farda ("Farda" means tomorrow in Persian) in a bind. The Iranian government calls Farda a "counterrevolutionary radio station." In fact, Farda simply provides the Iranian people the news their government denies them. Our ratings remain high. The regime expends considerable effort trying to jam our signals and block access to our website. It's not hard to understand why.

This summer, Farda provided in-depth reporting on Iranian protests over the regime's gas-rationing policies. Farda relied on stringers around the country for dozens of interviews with experts, officials, and ordinary citizens. We provided first-rate, objective analysis from economists outside Iran. While there had been some opening in the media landscape under reformist President Mohammad Khatami, this process of liberalization was shut down by Mahmud Ahmadinejad after he became president in 2005.

Today, government censors tell editors how they may cover "sensitive" stories. One may, for example, report on Iran's debate with the world community over Tehran's nuclear program. One may not, however, use the words "bomb" or "United Nations Security Council." Not surprisingly, news-hungry Iranians turn to Farda and Voice of America for accurate news and information.

Recently, Farda covered the arrests of members of Tehran's bus drivers union. Our broadcasters reported on the expulsion of Baha'i students from Iranian universities. This summer we analyzed the crackdown on women's dress code violations. Last week we featured a sad, bizarre story on "dog prisons" in Iran (clerical rulers view pet dogs as out of step with Islam); some police officers are apparently chafing under pressure to arrest kids walking their pets in parks. These social fissures are important. In a free society, independent media would feel obliged to cover them.

Our broadcasters and correspondents are brave to do what they do. Intelligence officers in Tehran interrogate and threaten family members of Farda staffers. This summer, a young journalist working for us was summoned by an Iranian court to face charges of conducting "activities against national security." Authorities have threatened to take possession of his aunt's house (in exchange for "bail" he "owes") should he not appear for trial. Another colleague expressed concern to me about activities of the Iranian Embassy in Prague. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the Iranian regime moved hard against exiles, killing Iranian citizens in numerous European countries. Iran's foreign minister, when he was ambassador to Turkey in the late 1980s, was expelled when it was discovered that he was involved in nabbing Iranian dissidents. Such activities, unfortunately, do not seem to have stopped; Iranian authorities have discouraged Parnaz Azima from returning to Farda.

In this context, it can be disheartening to witness the endless bickering in Washington over how to help Iranian civil society. It is strange to hear the outcry from some who rail against the U.S. government's earmark of $75 million to aid the effort. That seems a paltry sum considering the importance and magnitude of the task at hand. Does the regime use this modest support as a pretext to crack down on dissidents? Of course it does. That's what dictators do. All of us are still waiting for those flawless and risk-free alternatives.

Our Farda team is hardly a monolith. Our roughly three dozen colleagues include social democrats, monarchists, passionate pro-Americans and ardent critics of the U.S. president and his policies. Our youngest employee is 23, the oldest 73. One thing unites this diverse group: the conviction that Iran deserves a decent, accountable government and a political system far freer and more tolerant than the current one. For some that sounds like the dirty words "regime change." That's a pity. I thought we all liked "soft power," especially after Iraq. Many of us think this work still represents America at its best.