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Iranian American's chilling return to homeland

Tehran officials won't let Parnaz Azima leave. She says it's been a case of `spy, and you're free.'

July 22, 2007|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

TEHRAN — The man in the green uniform at the immigration control counter at Mehrabad airport stamped her passport. Journalist Parnaz Azima said she breathed a bottomless sigh of relief. It was here the intelligence officers often moved in, discreetly guiding visitors to the small office off to the side that every Iranian traveler knows and fears.

She met her brother, and they went to gather up her bags and head for the exit. Their mother was gravely ill, and Azima was anxious to see her before she died.

That's when they heard someone call out: "Mrs. Azima? Mrs. Azima?"

A man in a black suit escorted her back to the interrogation room.

"You can give me what I want now, or we can search through all of your bags," the man said, according to Azima, an Iranian American with U.S.-funded Radio Farda who is being barred from leaving Iran on charges of spreading propaganda against the regime.

Azima, stripped of her passport that January day, is one of several Iranian Americans swallowed up by their native country's security institutions.

The others are Middle East expert Haleh Esfandiari, sociologist Kian Tajbakhsh and Orange County peace activist Ali Shakeri.

Iranian authorities have subjected all four to interrogations and locked up all but Azima. Azima, 59, is free on more than half a million dollars bail. On the advice of her legal counsel, she has taken her plight public, offering a glimpse of the methods of Iranian security forces.

Azima's legal troubles cap a three-year flirtation with Iran, which she left in 1983 after being purged from her job as a government librarian.

She was branded a counterrevolutionary after the 1979 Islamic Revolution for failing to wear proper Islamic attire. While she was abroad, her brother called and warned her not to return; the Islamic regime's enforcers had come several times to her home, he said, and were looking to arrest her.

So began decades in exile in Europe and then the United States, where Azima forged a career on the East Coast as a translator and journalist. She became a mother, then a grandmother.

Radio Free Europe's Persian-language section, later renamed Radio Farda, or Tomorrow, recruited her in 1998, and she moved to Prague to work at the 24-hour radio station. She assembled reports about Iranian literature and poetry as well as about human rights for women and minorities.

Two years ago, with Iran under the presidency of reformist Mohammad Khatami, Azima received a surprise: an official invitation to come to Tehran and attend the March 1, 2005, dedication of the new Iranian National Library building.

Azima, who had jumped at the offer despite her initial concerns, was given the royal treatment during her two-week visit.

"They treated me like I was a VIP," Azima said during hours of interviews conducted recently in Tehran. "They asked me to promote their efforts on the radio."

Reconnecting with family and friends, she decided to return the next year for Persian New Year festivities.

By 2006, however, Khatami had retired from office and conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in power. Still, she arrived in Tehran without incident and stayed with her mother for three weeks. But on the day before she was scheduled to head back to the Czech capital, five bearded young men armed with a search warrant and court summons stormed into her mother's apartment.

They went room to room, removing an illegal satellite television receiver and seizing Azima's Iranian passport. They told her to show up at a special security court.

There, she was accused of working for a counterrevolutionary organization. "Isn't the goal of Radio Farda the overthrow of the Islamic Republic?" the interrogator asked, according to Azima's recollection.

No, she replied. The radio outlet adheres to international journalism standards emphasizing fairness, she said.

The Iranian security apparatus had closely monitored her reports, asking her about specific pieces she had broadcast about Iran's Kurdish minority, women's rights, censorship, U.S.-Iranian relations and the treatment of dissidents.

"Isn't it a counterrevolutionary station?" the interrogator asked. "If not, why do you have so much criticism of Iran?"

"As a woman, I am in favor of equal rights for women," she replied. "As a person of culture, I am opposed to censorship. As far as Kurdistan [goes], I interviewed a person from Kurdistan who was later put to death. I am opposed to the death penalty. If these are crimes, I am guilty of all these crimes."

He didn't reply. The session ended.

Azima pleaded with the interrogator to return her passport, but he warned her to keep quiet. "If you don't make a big deal about this, we'll clean it up and you'll be able to go back home," he said.

She warily complied. She posted the deed to her mother's home as bail to keep herself out of jail.

But the interrogator, however, offered her a deal, Azima said. Collaborate with Iranian intelligence services, and you can go home, back to your job at Radio Farda.

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