Former prisoner speaks about universal human rights

When Roxana Saberi was arrested in Tehran, Iran, in 2009, she didn’t know that more than a year later, she’d be a well-known human rights advocate speaking around the country.

“Why should we care about the violations of human rights when it happens to other people, whether it’s in our country or on the other side of the world?” she asked a University of St. Thomas audience Thursday evening.

<p>Saberi signs her book outside of OEC auditorium. (Maggie Clemensen/TommieMedia)</p>
Saberi signs her book outside of OEC auditorium. (Maggie Clemensen/TommieMedia)

Saberi spoke to about 325 people in the OEC Auditorium, as the first guest of the 2010-2011 Minnesota Public Radio Broadcast Journalism Series.

“If we don’t speak out, those people who inflict human rights violations will think that they don’t have to be held accountable, that they can act with impunity, and they will keep doing it,” Saberi said.

Saberi moved to Iran in 2003 to work as a freelance journalist. After her press credentials were revoked, Saberi began writing a book about Iranian culture. After she had interviewed several people for the book, Iranian authorities became suspicious of her activities. On the night of Jan. 31, 2009, four plainclothesmen came to Saberi’s apartment in Tehran, Iran and took her to Iran’s notorious Evin prison.

“Of course I was terrified when my captors brought me [there],” Saberia said. “I knew that some people stayed there for years and I had heard that some had even died there.”

Her captors brought her down a long corridor to a stark cell. Her cell contained a toilet that did not work, a sealed window too high to reach, a sink with water unfit to drink, a thin brown carpet on the floor and a sign written in Farsi, Iran’s most popular language, that read “Prisons must be colleges for human improvement.” She did not even have a bed in her cell.

“When I found myself in this situation, I felt anger at my captors, anger at myself, anger at God. I also felt denial,” she said. “I kept thinking of the past and the future and denied the present moment. The last thing I felt strongly was fear. I feared that something would happen to me in prison and no one would ever find out.”

During the first of several interrogations, Saberi discovered that her captors had arrested her on charges of espionage for the U.S. Saberi later found out she was being detained in section 209 of Evin Detention Center, which holds mainly political prisoners, many of whom she met during her stay there. These other political prisoners inspired her and gave Saberi the strength to survive her time in prison.

“When I was with these women, I finally started to no longer deny the present and tried to make the most of a bad situation,” she said.

They also taught her the importance of campaigning for human rights. Many of these prisoners were fighting against persecution and for human rights at the time of their arrests. Saberi encouraged the audience to reach out to those in need.

“What happens in one part of the world doesn’t affect just that part of the world – it also affects the region and then spreads across the globe,” she said. “There are many steps that we can take to help human rights wherever in the world.”

After international pressure and worldwide media coverage, Saberi was released May 11, 2009 and allowed to go home after four months in Evin prison.

Saberi’s father is Iranian and her mother is Japanese, and she grew up in Fargo, N.D. She was crowned Miss North Dakota in 1993 and eventually placed in the top ten at that year’s Miss America pageant. She attended Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., graduating in 1993 with degrees in mass communication and French. She then earned her master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University in Illinois and a master’s in international relations from Cambridge University in the U.K.

Maggie Clemensen can be reached at