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Roxana Saberi: Caught 'Between Two Worlds'

After 100 days in Iran's Evin prison, journalist Roxana Saberi was freed on May 11, 2009.
Hasan Sarbakhshian
After 100 days in Iran's Evin prison, journalist Roxana Saberi was freed on May 11, 2009.

At 9:00 a.m. Jan. 31, 2009, journalist Roxana Saberi's doorbell rang. She looked at her security system and saw a man standing on her front porch. The man told her he had a letter for her, so Saberi assumed it was the mailman and opened the door.

"He handed me a slip of paper, and I couldn't make much sense of it," Saberi tells Terry Gross. "I just saw on the piece of paper the word 'Evin.' And my heart started to beat because I knew Evin prison, the most notorious prison of Iran — and I said, 'Please, can I just have a moment to take a look at this because my Farsi isn't very good?' and I tried to shut the door, but I couldn't because his foot was propping it open."

A native of Fargo, N.D., Saberi had been working for six years as a freelance reporter in Iran. She watched as the man and three associates forced their way into her apartment and confiscated many of her belongings.

"They kept saying 'Cooperate. Cooperate and you'll be fine. And if not, we'll have to take you to Evin prison,' " Saberi says. "I learned later that their definition of 'cooperate' was to confess that I was a spy for America, and specifically that the book that I was writing about Iranian society, they claimed, was a cover for spying for America."

Saberi spent four months in Evin prison, which she recounts in her new memoir, Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran. Before Saberi was freed last May, the Obama administration negotiated for her release, calling the charges against Saberi "baseless." She was released to her father after being convicted of spying for the United States in a trial that accused her of "cooperating with a hostile state" and copying top-secret documents.

"I didn't have any classified documents," Saberi says. "I had a research article that was public information, but my captors lied and claimed I had a classified document, evidently to pretend that there was legitimacy to my case. And they tried to make me think that the research article I had was classified."

While in custody, Saberi was told by her interrogators that if she did not confess to crimes of espionage, she'd be sent to prison.

"I was under intense psychological pressure," she says. "They threatened to keep me in prison for many years. My interrogators said, 'We can keep you in prison for 10 years, 20 years. When you come out, you'll be an old lady. Can you imagine what you'll look like?' And they also reminded me that espionage can carry the death penalty. And then they started telling me that, 'We have agents all over the world. You've seen how capable we are — we can even find your family.' "

Saberi says she falsely confessed and almost immediately recanted her statement — even though doing so could potentially cause her to lose her freedom.

"I felt horrible," she says. "I felt I had lost my dignity. I felt I had lost principles of truth and honesty that I had always hoped that I would be able to live up to even under pressure."

After Saberi recanted, she was tried and sentenced to eight years of prison. That sentence was later reduced to a suspended two-year term. Saberi says she believes she was singled out by the Iranian government because of what she represented.

"I knew that this was the way, after the Iranian Revolution, that political prisoners had been forced to give confessions implicating themselves and others," she says. "Not everybody is forced to give a confession, but it's usually somebody who symbolizes something like an ideology or a group or a country — like me."

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