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A yearning that led to prison

Northridge student Esha Momeni took a gamble in Iran and lost

October 29, 2008|Ramin Mostaghim and Borzou Daragahi | Daragahi is a Times staff writer and Mostaghim is a special correspondent.

TEHRAN — She escaped an unhappy marriage and the restraints of a traditional society, finding solace in poetry and a calling in women's rights activism in the West.

But the drama of contemporary Iran continued to tug at her. After living in her native Southern California for the last three years, Esha Momeni returned to Tehran two months ago to videotape interviews for a project on women's rights. Amid a crackdown on such activities, she was playing with fire.

Momeni, 28, was abruptly arrested two weeks ago. On Tuesday, she was still being held for interrogation in Section 209, the notorious security ward of Iran's Evin prison. She had been allowed to make only one phone call to her family, her father and lawyer told The Times.

Her lawyer, Mohammed Ali Dadkhah, said Momeni was being denied access to legal counsel as a "temporary detainee," a condition that could last two months.

Before her arrest, Momeni had been scheduled to head back to California on Monday, her father said.

"The last time I talked to my daughter was one day after her arrest," said Reza Momeni, 60, a Tehran civil engineer. "She called me and said: 'Dad, I miss my family. Please give all my videos to the security guy coming to collect them.' "

Iranian officials say Esha Momeni is under investigation. No formal charges have been lodged.

"The relevant institutions and organizations are following the case," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi told reporters in Tehran on Monday. "She is under investigation and until the investigation is finalized, we cannot make any comment."

Before her arrest, Momeni, a Cal State Northridge student, followed a path that differed from much of the rest of Southern California's Iranian diaspora. Whereas many Iranians fled to the United States after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, her family moved back to Iran from the U.S. in the early 1980s.

Reza Momeni, a U.S. citizen and father of five, was studying in Southern California at the time of the revolution. When war broke out between Iran and Iraq in 1980, he moved his family back home. He helped rebuild damaged sites, working in conflict-ravaged areas around cities such as Bandar Abbas and Bushehr.

Esha Momeni showed an early passion for the arts, learning to play the tar, a traditional string instrument, and delving into poetry and literature. She graduated from a Tehran college with a degree in graphics and in 2003 married a man her father described as a "male chauvinist" with emotional problems.

"She had a bad experience," her father said. "Finally she managed to end her ordeal by divorcing him."

The bitter breakup drove her from arts to activism, specifically women's rights issues. She began participating in the One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality, a group that connects activists in Iran with Iranian communities in the West.

Activist organizations, many of which advocate peaceful political and social change, greatly irk authorities in the Islamic Republic. Iran accuses them of being fronts for Western powers seeking to topple the government using the "velvet revolution" tactics that contributed to the downfall of regimes in former Soviet states.

A report issued this month by a United Nations human rights watchdog raised concerns about "an increasing crackdown in the past year on the women's rights movement" in Iran.

"Women's rights activism is sometimes presented by the Iranian government as being connected to external security threats to the country," the report says.

On Sunday, security agents blocked Sussan Tahmasebi, a leader of One Million Signatures, from leaving Iran and seized her passport, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Momeni moved back to the U.S. after her divorce in 2005. She joined with other scholars and activists working to improve the lot of Iranian women. Their activities sound harmless: gathering signatures for petitions, holding workshops and informing women of their legal rights.

But Momeni's father says it was sentiment and family, not politics, that lured her back to Iran. "Whenever we talked about Iran she was tempted to come back," he said. "My daughter was not against the political order."

Against the advice of her academic advisors at Cal State Northridge, she returned two months ago to videotape interviews with women about their lives in Iran for a master's degree project.

She was stopped Oct. 15 on Modarres Highway, Tehran's main north-south expressway, allegedly for speeding. Soon after she called her father, weeping. "She was scared," he recalled.

Security officers escorted her home, where they seized her computer before taking her away.

At a hearing at one of Tehran's Revolutionary Courts, a judge refused to accept the deed to the Momenis' home as bail or allow Dadkhah, a noted attorney, to speak on her behalf. For now, the lawyer has been briefing Momeni's mother on making legal presentations.

"Every day, first thing in the morning, she goes to the entrance of Revolutionary Court, hoping to see her brought to trial," Reza Momeni said of his wife.

Dadkhah said he was confident the young woman would be released soon.

"Based on my experience, these sorts of arrests are conducted by low-level security personnel, rank-and-file personnel," he told The Times. "It takes time before the top officials are involved and settle the case wisely and prudently."

Reza Momeni noted that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisted during a visit last month to the U.N. that Iranians were free to say what they wanted.

"If my daughter makes a film about women's rights because she is proud that Iranian women are asserting their rights," Momeni said, "what is wrong with that?"

--

daragahi@latimes.com

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