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U.S. scholar is allowed to leave Iran

She flies to Austria after four months in prison, accused by Tehran of promoting revolution.

September 04, 2007|Ramin Mostaghim and Jeffrey Fleishman | Special to The Times

TEHRAN — An American scholar accused of promoting revolution in Iran has been allowed to leave the country and reunite with her family in Austria, ending months of protests by human rights groups and heated exchanges between Tehran and Washington.

Haleh Esfandiari, 67, who was released on bail Aug. 21 after four months in prison, was contacted by Iranian authorities Sunday and told to pick up her passport, her lawyer told reporters Monday. She flew out of Tehran and arrived in Austria, where her sister lives, to rejoin her husband, Shaul Bakhash, a historian at George Mason University in Virginia.

"After a long and difficult ordeal, I am elated to be on my way back to my home and my family," Esfandiari said in a statement released by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, where she heads the Middle East studies program. "These last eight months that included 105 days in solitary confinement in Evin prison have not been easy. But I wish to put this episode behind me and to look to the future, not to the past."

There were also indications that an Iranian American journalist working for a U.S.-funded radio program and charged with similar crimes would be allowed to leave the country. Parnaz Azima, a correspondent for Radio Farda, has been free on bail.

"I was summoned to the Intelligence Ministry and they told me, 'Go and collect your passport,' " Azima told The Times on Monday. "But today it was too late and I couldn't make it because of office hours. Tomorrow I will pick up my passport and leave the country as soon as possible."

It was unclear what Iran's motivations were in releasing Esfandiari, who holds dual American and Iranian citizenship. The decision came during intense lobbying by current and former U.S. officials and at a time when the Bush administration is calling for another round of United Nations sanctions to curtail Iran's nuclear program.

Esfandiari's legal fate was unknown. The Iranian Intelligence Ministry has accused her of espionage and of cooperating with the Bush administration to influence students, scholars and others to instigate a peaceful revolution to overthrow the Iranian government. The scholar, if called by Tehran, would be required to return and face trial, according to Shiran Ebadi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and one of Esfandiari's lawyers.

Esfandiari had been robbed of her travel documents by masked men while she was preparing to leave Iran at Christmas. When she sought new documents, she was barred from departing the country and subjected to weeks of interrogation. On May 8, she was imprisoned at Evin without access to a lawyer. She was released last month after posting the equivalent of $333,000 in bail, using her mother's home as collateral.

The latest development in Esfandiari's case came on the same day that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed an Iranian-sponsored conference on human rights and cultural diversity. Ahmadinejad did not mention Esfandiari but accused the U.S. of repeatedly violating human rights in its efforts to counter terrorism.

"They have established secret prisons and are kidnapping anyone they want at airports without any legal jurisdiction," Ahmadinejad told the audience, according to a report by the Iranian news agency.

Lee H. Hamilton, a former Indiana congressman and president of the Wilson center, recently sent a letter to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, asking for Esfandiari's release. He received assurance that the case would be addressed soon.

"I am elated that Haleh can now leave Iran and is returning to the United States," Hamilton said. "It will be marvelous to have her home."

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer Fleishman from Cairo. Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Paris contributed to this report.

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