Iranian war prisoner shares story in Iowa City


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Roxana Saberi drummed her fingers against a concrete wall, trying to remember a piece she played on a piano long ago. She wasn’t practicing for a recital. She was passing the time she spent in an Iranian prison while being held hostage for 100 days.

Saberi was imprisoned because Iranian officials suspected her of committing espionage. She now speaks to universities and other audiences about her experiences and human-rights issues.

Saberi spoke Monday night at the Englert Theater, 221 E. Washington St., the first of the University Lecture Committee’s lecture series for the spring semester.

On a January morning in 2009, four men from the Iranian government came to Saberi’s door with a letter listing the prison Saberi would reside in until May.

Throughout the 100 days of captivity, Saberi was isolated. She did not receive an attorney until five weeks after her imprisonment. She was threatened with eight years of prison and questioned under uncomfortable conditions, causing her to give a false confession, which she later recanted.

Through it all, Saberi managed to be grateful.

“If we can be grateful for something in prison, we can be grateful for something every day,” Saberi said. “It just helps us puts things in perspective. So, for example, my cellmate would be grateful when she could see the moon through the bars in the window or getting an extra vegetable in the stew, and it helped us to not feel sorry for ourselves.”

Saberi said she hopes the UI audience takes a few pieces of her story to heart.

“What my cellmates taught me was that even though you can’t control anything around you, you can always control your own attitude and your response to how you deal with what happens to you,” she said.

One UI student wanted to see Saberi speak because it played to her Persian heritage.

“Persian people all have different experiences, and I wanted to hear another experience,” law student Sara Ghadiri said.

Saberi said many of the prisoners she met were political prisoners and prisoners of conscience — those who stood up for human rights. She believed that although the Iranian government has much to improve upon, the people of Iran are trying to make a change.

UI political-science professor John Conybeare said hostage situations may continue in Iran if the government feels its weapons supply is threatened.

“It doesn’t seem effective, in my opinion,” he said of the prison tactics. “I suppose [hostage situations] could increase if the U.S. and the U.N. take more severe measures with constricting weapons from the Iranian government.”

Saberi urged members of the community to speak out against injustice.

“The other thing [I learned in prison] was the importance for being a voice for the voiceless,” Saberi said. “…It doesn’t mean we have to be in the limelight or help someone from across the world; we can help someone in our own community.”

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