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Bemidji Library Book Festival: Saberi discusses captivity in Iran

As Roxanna Saberi was quoted as saying in "Area Woman Magazine," July 2010, "Now that I'm free, I feel that my responsibilities are greater than they were before. I hope I can help others no matter where they are in the world."

Of course, Saberi is referring to her confinement in the infamous Evin Prison in Iran where suspected political prisoners were housed in solitary confinement.

The opportunity for Saberi to visit her father, Reza's, homeland came when she was offered a journalism position by Feature Story News. She had listened at her father's knee as a child as he read Persian poetry aloud to her and her brother Jasper back home in Fargo, N.D. And now she was offered a chance of a lifetime to visit with her relatives and immerse herself in Persian culture.

In 2003, Saberi arrived in Iran and started working as a journalist for FSN, which caught the attention of the British Broadcasting System, which asked her to freelance, doing stories for radio, television and online editions. When she first arrived in Iran, Mohammad Khatami, the president at that time, was thought to be a moderate reformist.

During her travels in Iran, Saberi interviewed many people of both sexes, from poor to rich, from barely literate to highly educated, and she came to value those relationships and felt a kinship with her Persian heritage. In short, she fell in love with Iran and her people.

With the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, hardliners increased their pressure on non-government organizations, journalists, civil right activists, students and religious minorities. After Saberi's press credentials were revoked, she continued to gather information for her book and interview people.

One morning, the last day of January, four men from the Intelligence Ministry arrived at her apartment to arrest her on charges of espionage -- spying for the United States. Although Saberi held dual citizenship, American and Iranian, dual citizenships were not recognized by the government.

Saberi first spent her first days in solitary confinement in a cell with a cement floor, a thin carpet and no toilet facility, and a quote from Ayatollah Khomeini on the wall: "Prisons must be colleges for human improvement."

The audience in the Bemidji High School Auditorium paid rapt attention to her story. She asked them to close their eyes and imagine how frightened she was at the time by explaining how she was blindfolded and seated at a student desk and listened as four men shouted at her. "You are a spy for America," they proclaimed.

Then Saberi asked the audience by show of hands how many would give a false confession to gain freedom; how many would not give a false confession; and how many did not know what they would do. The overwhelming response was that most people would not know what they would do under similar circumstances, which seemed to bring a smile to Saberi's face.

In her book, "Between Two Worlds, My Life and Captivity in Iran," Saberi said she kept thinking about the tuna fish can in the garbage of her apartment that would smell after a while. Who would clean up for her? Would her friend Bahman, the Kurdish filmmaker, let himself in with a key she let him keep to see why she was not answering his cell phone calls? Did he think she was away and forgot to let him know? How could she have been so trusting? How could she have been so naive?

The kinship with the people was also felt by Saberi during imprisonment as her sister inmates comforted her during those days when she was first released from solitary confinement to live with other women in a crowded cell. She called them "Angels of Evin."

Saberi was transferred time and time again and carried with her some gifts she received from released prisoners: an extra blanket, a black-and-white television and some clothing. That little television was the one way Saberi could keep up with what was happening in the world as censored by the "authorities."

One night, Saberi and her cellmates listened to a broadcast from the Iranian media that told of her eight-year sentence; she had been convicted the day before for being a spy for the United States. The broadcast also told of the protests around the world for her release.

"I thought, 'I'm not alone anymore,'" Saberi said to those gathered to hear her story.

The public media and civil rights organizations from around the world exposed the injustices thrust upon Saberi, which eventually led to her release and return to the States.

Saberi spoke of her shame at having given a false confession on the promise of a quick release from prison. She learned through introspection and counsel from her sister prisoners that that no matter how terrible the circumstances, one must stay true to one's convictions and ultimately the true path will appear. She learned from her Baha'i sisters to be grateful every day for something,

And, finally, Saberi asked that we all continue to fight for human rights around the world.