After Surviving Evin Prison, She Works To Free Others

At an average pace, most people can cover about three miles if they walk for a full hour.

For 105 days in the summer of 2007, Haleh Esfandiari took such a walk every morning and again each afternoon and evening, in effect cumulatively walking the distance from New York City to Nashville. It was how she kept herself sane as she endured solitary confinement at Evin prison in Tehran, walking in circles, in her cell.

“You despair when you are in solitary confinement,” she later recounted in the Wilson Quarterly. “You don’t know what’s going on in the outside world. You don’t know whether people are working to get you out. You don’t get to see your lawyer. I coped by concentrating on the monotonous regime I had established to keep myself from falling apart.”

Esfandiari’s ordeal began when the then-67-year-old was heading to the airport, returning home to Washington, D.C. after visiting her 93-year-old mother in Tehran. A dual Iranian-American and director of the Middle East Program at the non-partisan Wilson Center, Esfandiari suddenly found herself confronted by a group of masked bandits who seized her suitcases and both passports and disappeared into the night.

“At first I thought, ‘okay, robberies happen at two in the morning on the way to the airport. So what?” she recalls now in an interview over Skype. “But within 24 or 48 hours, I realized this was not your ordinary robbery.” Rather, she’d been held up by government henchmen, marking the beginning of an eight-month ordeal.

At first, Esfandiari was commanded to appear at the “Office of the Presidency,” a euphemism for Iran’s security agency, where she endured lengthy interrogations along with threats and pressure to identify “networks” of people and organizations the Iranian government believed were planning a revolution.

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