Excerpts of a commentary published by Josh Fattal, former American prisoner in Iran, published in The Los Angeles Times
On the morning of my appearance before an Iranian Revolutionary Court, where I was convicted on a fabricated charge of espionage, I heard the chant “Death to America!” from the world beyond my prison window. The chant, and the associated stereotype of Islamic Iran, was quite different from what I heard in Section 209, the grim area of Evin Prison where political detainees are beaten, tortured and held without charge. As Americans, my friend and cellmate Shane Bauer and I were denied contact with Iranian inmates during our imprisonment there. Yet time and again, they found the courage to defy that rule and lift our spirits.
When I would sing anguished songs to the emptiness, I would hear a knock of solidarity on my wall from an adjoining cell. Then another knock. Then a whisper from the hallway, and the soothing words in English, “We hope you become free!” Prisoners would hide candies in the washroom for us to find. I would repay the kindness by sneaking chocolates, which my interrogators let me have, into the shower for my hall mates to discover.
Over the 781 days of my incarceration, I developed a deep sense of solidarity with these Iranians. I landed in Evin Prison by happenstance in the summer of 2009. Shane and his girlfriend, Sarah Shourd, were living in Damascus, Syria, at the time, and I went to visit them after completing an international teaching fellowship. The idea of escaping the bustle of Damascus with a trip to the placid mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan appealed to us all. Without us knowing, our hike took us up to the unmarked frontier with Iran, where border guards detained us. Sarah was held for 14 months. Shane and I were held another year, until September 2011. Our captivity lasted longer than the Iranian hostage crisis.
In the weeks before our arrest, millions of Iranians took to the streets of Tehran in anger at the rigged re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It was the largest popular protest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and many of my fellow inmates at Evin were arrested during the demonstrations. The activists held in Evin were tortured and, in some instances, killed for seeking basic human rights. Yet they saw meaning in their condition. As one prisoner whispered secretly from the hallway, “Being in prison is a road to democracy.”
Though the popular protests died down, dissatisfaction over domestic issues, including the economy and restrictions on personal freedoms, remained high and became a major factor in last year’s presidential election The fact Iran’s clerical establishment allowed Rouhani to run and then engage with the United States was the result of this internal pressure for change. His election owes more to the inmates of Section 209 and to the millions of Iranians who refused to accept the status quo than to the economic sanctions imposed from abroad.