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Journalist On Surviving In Iran: Don't Name Names

Maziar Bahari is a journalist and documentarian.
Rory Peck Trust
Maziar Bahari is a journalist and documentarian.

Before the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East and North Africa, there was the Green Movement in Iran.

In June 2009, hundreds of thousands of Iranians protested against what they considered a rigged election that kept President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power. Shortly afterward, the Iranian government carried out a violent crackdown against opposition leaders, protesters and journalists.

Maziar Bahari, who was covering the elections for Newsweek magazine, was among the journalists there.

"I had worked in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in the Congo, and I had seen so many horrible scenes before," Bahari said in an interview with Tell Me More host Michel Martin. "But I had never seen such brutality in my life."

Bahari was arrested on June 21, 2009 and spent 118 days in Evin, the notorious prison where the Iranian government holds political prisoners. He chronicles the election and his nearly four-month imprisonment in a new memoir "Then They Came For Me: A Family Story of Love Captivity and Survival."

My Interrogator

From the beginning of Bahari's time in prison, he was assigned to one interrogator. Bahari rarely saw the interrogator's face or knew his real name. Bahari called this man Rosewater because he didn't shower often and he covered himself in rosewater to mask the stench of sweat.

Rosewater accused Bahari of being the mastermind behind Western media in Iran.

"From day one, they asked me really ridiculous questions about my spy network," he says, "in order to just break me, in order for me to admit that I was a spy."

Throughout their interrogations, Rosewater consistently accused Bahari of espionage. The interrogator presented a video of the late-night satirical TV program "The Daily Show" as proof of the charges against him. Rosewater questioned Bahari on his Facebook affiliations, and accused him of attending "sex parties" and having an affair with Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi.

"My interrogations, as a result, became really Kafka-esque," Bahari says, "It went from absurd to ridiculous to nonsensical."

At one point, Rosewater confides that his father was brutally tortured during the Shah's regime. In his memoir, Bahari describes his reaction: "How could a man whose father had endured such torture, now administer torture himself? What a senseless absurd cycle of violence this was.

A Family Story

Bahari was beaten almost every day. He says the 107 days of solitary confinement was the worst kind of torture, and as a result, he became delusional. He hallucinated and had imaginary conversations with his father and his sister, who were also imprisoned. Bahari even considered killing himself by breaking his glasses and using the lens to slit his wrists. His father's voice stopped him.

"He told me, 'don't do their job for them, if they want to kill you they can do it themselves,'" Bahari says. "That really was a wake up call to me."

Bahari says his memories of sitting around the dinner table and hearing prison stories from his father and his sister helped him garner the strength he needed to survive.

Choosing Not To Stay Silent

Bahari was eventually forced to give a false confession and to promise to spy on others on behalf of the Iranian government. He says his forced confession was a compromise he was willing to make because he never "named names."

"I never incriminated any individual, and as a result, no one else incriminated me either," says Bahari. "It was because of selfish reasons. It was because I knew that I would be in more trouble if I named names."

Bahari was eventually released, mainly due to an intense international campaign to pressure the Iranian government. Before Bahari left Evin prison Rosewater warned him not to speak about what happened, threatening that they can always find him and bring him back to Iran in a bag.

But Bahari says he felt obligated to write and speak about his experience. Since the 2009 elections, Bahari is one of the only high-profile prisoners to be released.

"Thousands are still languishing in Iranian prisons," he says. "They don't have a voice; I have to be their voice. I couldn't live with myself if I remained silent."

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NPR Staff