Who I’m Versus

by JL Wall

(Yes, I’m stealing William Brafford’s introductory motif from The League.)

A lot has happened in the last week/newscycle – mostly torture memos, I suppose. But even on Northwestern’s campus, a story that would otherwise have been major news got pushed aside (here, by the most ridiculous student-government elections ever – long story): that is, American journalist (and Northwestern alumna) Roxana Saberi was sentenced to eight years in prison in Iran for “espionage.” The story, of course, hasn’t been ignored. But the part of the blogosphere that I frequent has been fixated (with good cause) on the torture memos, to the extent that her sentencing has merited only a little attention (at most).

But she got a good deal of attention before this past week, with varied movements for her release and Nobel Prize laureates petitioning on her behalf. Yet, there is a question worth asking, and an anonymous commenter raises it here:

And if it turns out that she is a spy and Iran is completely justified?
As far as we all know, this could be the truth of the situation.

Given that the suddenness of the charges’ transformation into espionage, her trial (one day), and sentencing (the entire process, after being held on totally unrelated charges for three months, took two weeks) makes her father’s statements that she was coerced into confessing seem all the more likely, I doubt that’s the truth. But let’s run with it. Let’s say she was a spy. This Iranian prison and her treatment is still part of what I’m versus.

Regardless of guilt or innocence, she’s a political prisoner in Iran. And, despite Ahmadinajad’s best open-collared posturing, nothing’s going to make that a safe or pleasant experience. Iranian political prisoners exist as individual human beings only at the mercy of the state, and history has shown that this is a state with a short supply of mercy.

She’s being held in Evin Prison, compared to a “torture chamber” by its former residents, and Amnesty International has noted a “risk of torture or other ill-treatment” for those held there. Iran’s efforts to respond to this reputation resulted in a creepy demonstration of a prison where, essentially, the prisoners lead better and happier lives than if they had never been arrested. But according to the Iranian government, there are no political prisoners there. Only part of the women’s ward was allowed to be viewed, and if a prisoner started to complain to reporters, they were taken away quickly. And reporters were specifically barred from visiting the foreign-nationals who piqued their interest – you know, the political prisoners.

But we do have detailsof the stay one Western journalist who was arrested in Iran and “detained” in Evin, Zahra Kazemi:

Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi died in Iranian custody on July 11, 2003, almost three weeks after she was arrested for taking pictures outside a prison during a student protest in Tehran.

Two days later, Iran’s official news agency reported that Kazemi had died in hospital, after suffering a stroke while she was being interrogated. On July 16, 2003, the story changed. Mohammad Ali Abtahi, Iran’s vice-president, conceded that Kazemi died as a result of being beaten.


The case stayed under the radar screens of most Canadians until March 31, 2005, and the stunning revelations of Shahram Azam, a former staff physician in Iran’s Defence Ministry. He said he examined Kazemi in hospital, four days after her arrest.

Azam said Kazemi showed obvious signs of torture, including:
• Evidence of a very brutal rape.
• A skull fracture, two broken fingers, missing fingernails, a crushed big toe and a broken nose.
• Severe abdominal bruising, swelling behind the head and a bruised shoulder.
• Deep scratches on the neck and evidence of flogging on the legs.

Iran refused to return the body to her family for burial in Canada.

So if Roxana Saberi is a spy? If she is guilty, despite the kangaroo proceedings, despite all we know about Iranian “justice”? I still think outrage is the appropriate response. Because she’s a fellow American-citizen being held by these people in that pit of a prison. Because she’s a fellow human being being held by these people in that pit of a prison. Because I’ve seen the faces of her former professors sink into despair when one of them, still not used to the idea of her in prison, mentions her as an example of someone with a post-graduation attitude and vision we should emulate.

Because, when you look at the reports out of Evin, and out of Iran’s judiciary – that’s who I’m versus. And because I’m versus that, I have to be versus this.   And anyone who says you can be against one and not the other is lying.

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