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Iranian American’s chilling return to homeland

Times Staff Writer

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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Azima refused. She told her interrogator that she was 18 when Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi’s security service, the SAVAK, approached her and asked her to inform on her fellow students. Back then she also refused.

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“I told him, I am almost 60 now and I don’t have more than 10 or 15 years left,” she said. “I have one son, and the only thing I have to give him is my name and integrity -- I’m not going to ruin this at the end of my life.”

What they wanted, he said, wasn’t much. “If a bomb is about to go off, you’ll tell us about it,” he said.

“I said to him, ‘If a bomb is about to go off, it’s my duty to alert the public about it,’ ” she said. “ ‘I don’t need to make some kind of deal with you.’ ”

The interviews continued for three weeks, then, they handed back her passport and let her go. After she left, they cleared her of charges and handed back the deed to her mother’s home.

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But before she left she had a question for her interrogator. Why didn’t they arrest her the previous year?

“Last year,” he told Azima, “you were our guest.”

When Azima’s 93-year-old mother fell severely ill this year, Azima found herself facing another harrowing trip to Iran.

Her plane arrived before midnight Jan. 25 at the Tehran airport.

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“That CD you brought,” the man in the black suit told her. “Hand it over, and we won’t search your bag.”

Azima wondered whether they were trying to trump up an espionage case against her or just wanted an excuse to search her bags. They found nothing, but again seized her Iranian passport.

Azima’s mother recovered from her illness. Azima, along with her lawyer, Mohammed Hossein Aghassi, began navigating the byzantine maze of Iran’s security establishment.

An interrogator asked why she had refused to collaborate.

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Azima replied that she would never work for them. She asked for her passport back but was told to go home and wait.

Iranian law requires that charges be filed before passports are taken. Still, weeks became months, and no charges were forthcoming.

Frustrated, Azima and her lawyer alerted the international media. They enlisted the support of the Swiss Embassy, which acts as a U.S. liaison in Iran in the absence of formal relations between Washington and Tehran.

Iranian authorities were furious. She was summoned to the Revolutionary Court to face charges May 15.

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Aghassi advised Azima to bring her toothpaste and personal items to the court appointment because she might be sent to jail.

She was charged with working for an institution that authorities alleged spreads propaganda against the Iranian regime. Bail was set at about $600,000, the estimated amount Azima earned during nine years at Radio Farda. She put up the deed to her mother’s home.

Aghassi said he believed Azima and the three other Iranian Americans were being held against their will in retaliation for the five junior Iranian diplomats detained by the U.S. in a Jan. 11 raid on an Iranian government office in northern Iraq.

“If the five Iranian diplomats are freed in Iraq, then there might be some reciprocity, and Parnaz and other cases may be positively affected,” Aghassi said.

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Azima considers herself lucky to be out on bail but still feels like a prisoner.

“My situation is unclear,” she said. “I have trouble sleeping and eating. I have nightmares.”

daragahi@latimes.com


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