Iran frees U.S. scholar from prison

Md. woman allowed to post bail

security charges still pending

August 22, 2007|By Ramin Mostaghim and Borzou Daragahi | Ramin Mostaghim and Borzou Daragahi,LOS ANGELES TIMES

TEHRAN, Iran -- Iranian officials announced yesterday the release of a scholar from Maryland held on national security and espionage charges for more than 100 days in the capital's Evin Prison.

Haleh Esfandiari, 67, an Iranian-American from Potomac, has been released on bail set at the equivalent of about $333,000, according to Iranian news agencies.

A judiciary official said the court had no further need to hold Esfandiari, the Fars News Agency reported. Shireen Ebadi, the Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner and Esfandiari's lawyer, said the scholar had put up her mother's home in Tehran as bail.

"I talked to Haleh just now. She is at home [at her mother's apartment]," Ebadi told the Los Angeles Times yesterday. "I am happy that finally the judiciary branch succumbed to the law."

Although she has been freed from jail, Esfandiari continues to face charges and might have to appear in court. Judge Hassan Haddad, a prosecutor in a special national-security court, told the semiofficial Mehr news agency that the inquiry into Esfandiari and another detained scholar would continue. He said indictments might follow.

Iranian officials typically forbid those facing political charges from leaving the country while out on bail. In rare cases when they are allowed to leave, they frequently must post their homes as bail.

"The release of Haleh does not necessarily imply that she can leave the country in the near future," said Mohammad Hussein Aghassi, the lawyer of Iranian-American journalist Parnaz Azima, who was barred from leaving her native country because she faces charges of spreading propaganda against the regime. "I think [Esfandiari's] age and worry for her health were taken into consideration by the judiciary branch."

Esfandiari heads the Middle East Program at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington think tank. She was stopped and robbed of her travel documents by masked men during a brief visit to her ailing mother last winter. She was subjected to weeks of interrogation and barred from leaving the country. On May 8, she was locked inside Iran's most infamous prison without access to her lawyer.

Three days later, authorities locked up Kian Tajbakhsh, an Iranian-American sociologist working for philanthropist George Soros' Open Society Institute. Both were charged with undermining Iran's national security.

They surfaced on television in a two-part documentary called In the Name of Democracy, which showed them allegedly confessing to taking part in a U.S.-backed plot to spark a peaceful revolution against Iran's leaders.

Iran and the United States have been at odds since 1979, when Islamic revolutionaries toppled the pro-American Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and took U.S. diplomats as hostages for 444 days. Long-standing tensions have grown into a war of words and military maneuvering over Iran's nuclear energy program, which Washington says is a cover for the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

Ramin Mostaghim and Borzou Daragahi write for the Los Angeles Times.

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