Iranian-American academic Haleh Esfandiari was charged yesterday with conspiring to overthrow Iran’s government after being imprisoned two weeks ago when she tried to return to the US from Iran. In a statement released by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, officials accused Esfandiari of establishing a network that would work “against the sovereignty of the country,” the New York Times reports.
Esfandiari, 67, directs the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a prominent think-tank in Washington, DC. Twice a year, she would return to Iran to visit her ailing 93-year-old mother. She was prevented from leaving Iran in December 2006 when three masked men carrying knives ambushed her car on the way to the airport. Her belongings, including her passports, were stolen during the attack. When applying for a new Iranian passport, she was subjected to interrogations lasting as long as eight hours. She was jailed on May 8 in the notorious Evin prison and received her formal charge just yesterday.
Wilson Center director Lee H. Hamilton issued a statement on Esfandiari’s arrest, saying, “Haleh has not engaged in any activities to undermine any government, including the Iranian government” There is not one scintilla of evidence to support these outrageous claims.” Other organizations and academics have spoken out against Esfandiari’s detainment, including Noam Chomsky, the American Association of University Professors, and the Middle East Studies Association of North America. Human Rights Watch has also called for Esfandiari’s release.
Nobel Peace Prize winner and Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi was asked by Esfandiari’s family to represent her, but prosecutors denied Ebadi access to visit with Esfandiari and refused to recognize Ebadi as Esfandiari’s lawyer, the New York Times reports.
Esfandiari has been an advocate of women’s rights for many years, and her arrest comes during a time of increased persecution of women’s rights activists, students, teachers, journalists, and laborers in Iran.