It seemed like a routine traffic stop. At first.
Esha Momeni, an Iranian American scholar visiting Tehran, was pulled over Oct. 15. She had allegedly committed a traffic violation while driving along the main north-south highway of the Iranian capital.
But instead of writing up a ticket and sending her on her way, the purported traffic cops escorted the Cal State Northridge graduate student to her relatives’ home.
They searched the place, human rights organizations say, confiscating her computer and footage of interviews she’d conducted as part of her research for a master’s degree thesis.
Then they took Momeni, who was born in Los Angeles, away, according to a report issued this week by Amnesty International.
Momeni, 28, was reportedly being held in the notorious Section 209 of Tehran’s Evin Prison, though officials have not announced any charges. Amnesty International and others worry that she might be subjected to torture.
Friends have launched a website to demand Momeni’s release, and administrators at Northridge have asked congressional offices and other federal officials to help secure her release.
“She is a student invested in learning and understanding current conditions in the country of her family’s origin. Anyone who values knowledge and the role of academic inquiry in shedding light on the human condition should be concerned” about the arrest, Cal State Northridge President Jolene Koester said in a statement released Thursday.
State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters this week that U.S. officials were seeking more information about the case. “We stand with all those in Iran who are working for universal human rights and justice in their countries,” he told reporters.
A friend, filmmaker Anayansi Prado, told her college newspaper, the Daily Sundial, that Momeni was being held in solitary confinement:
If the experiences of past incarcerated Iranian Americans is any guide, she’s probably being treated reasonably well, though held incommunicado and subject to grueling interrogations about her political affiliations.
Momeni arrived in Iran about two months ago to research for her thesis about the women’s movement there. According to Amnesty, she had conducted video interviews with members of Change for Equality, a nonprofit organization that aims to improve the status of women in Iran. The group trains women in nonviolent political activism and civil disobedience, tactics the Iranian government equates with the type of “velvet revolution” movements that toppled governments in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine.
Her thesis advisor, Melissa Wall, a professor of mass communications, said Momeni was not looking to challenge government or religious policies in Iran. “She is not some crazed, radical person. She is a lovely young woman who wanted to document these Iranian women’s lives. She did not have some big agenda,” Wall said in an interview.
Momeni was born in California while her father was a civil engineering student at Cal State Los Angeles. Her family moved back to Iran when she was a child, Northridge officials said. A painter and musician, she earned an undergraduate degree in graphic design at Azad University of Tehran in 2002 and came to the Northridge campus two years ago.
Dave Blumenkrantz, a Northridge journalism professor who also serves on Momeni’s thesis committee, recalled that he and other faculty members had asked her to consider dropping her trip to Iran in light of possible dangers even though her project is more related to art and photography involving women than to anything overtly political.
“Concerns were raised,” Blumenkrantz said. “She said, ‘Thanks for the advice, but this is something I really want to do.’ She was not talking about it in a militant way, but her mind was made up.
“She’s just brilliant and very talented,” he said. “She is an original thinker.”
At a campus news conference Thursday afternoon, University Provost Harold Hellenbrand said the arrest was particularly painful for a campus that “values intercultural communications a great deal.” Momeni, he said, “occupies two worlds and was trying to make those two worlds understand each other.”
At a court hearing Monday attended by relatives at one of Tehran’s Revolutionary courts, officials said that no details would be disclosed until an investigation was complete.