- The Washington Times - Monday, July 13, 2009

TEHRAN | Female flight attendants in head scarves had begun attending to passengers inside the Iran Air aircraft bound for Dubai. But as long as the plane remained on the tarmac, I couldn’t feel free.

What began as a planned, weeklong trip to cover Iran’s presidential elections had turned into a monthlong saga that included nearly three weeks of solitary confinement and a final indignity: a night in a jail cell at the airport for no apparent reason. Perhaps an alternative power center ordered that I be kept, or the same faction that had decided to release me had second thoughts.

So I suppressed my exhilaration and anticipation, and refrained from talking on my obviously bugged cell phone — unlike the previous day when I had called friends and devoured the news of what had happened in Iran while I was incommunicado. I scanned the aisles of the Iran Air plane for any suspicious-looking characters without carry-on luggage who might move to arrest me again.

Our scheduled departure time of 8 p.m. came and went. The doors remained open to Imam Khomeini International Airport’s departure hall. Somewhere inside, Greek Ambassador Nikos Garrylidis was anxiously waiting for me to call and confirm that we were taxiing down the runway. He was taking no chances after the previous evening, when airport police waited for him to leave before rearresting me — setting off another 24 hours of frantic diplomacy between Tehran and Athens.

I thought I was not taking any exceptional chances as I covered Iran’s June 12 presidential elections. Having lived in Iran for 2 1/2 years between 2004 and 2007, I thought I knew the red lines. But the turmoil that erupted after the Iranian government announced a “landslide” victory for incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was like nothing Iran had experienced since the 1979 Islamic revolution. And the rules that had protected journalists, particularly foreign ones, no longer seemed to apply.

Before the protests, the Iranian government appeared delighted to have issued visas to nearly 500 international journalists — including a fake one from Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” — to cover the elections. Here was an opportunity to flaunt Iran’s brand of Islamic participatory democracy and rub the unprecedented turnout into the noses of Western foes and authoritarian Arab rivals.

But many of the more than 40 million people who voted for one of four sanctioned candidates were infuriated by the perception that the results had been manipulated to give Mr. Ahmadinejad a margin of 11 million votes over Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister.

Things turned nasty as tens of thousands of Iranians flooded the streets and faced off against riot police deployed outside sensitive government buildings. The hundreds of journalists suddenly were no longer a prestige project but a dangerous liability whose reporting was besmirching Iran’s image abroad.

Some European cameramen and photographers fled after their equipment was smashed or confiscated. The government barred all journalists from reporting on the streets and refused to extend visas for foreigners.

As a citizen of Greece, which has relatively good relations with Iran for a Western country, I hoped against hope that I might find a way to stay. Little did I know that the Ministry of Intelligence was about to grant my wish.

As I dutifully tried to leave on June 17 — the day my visa expired — a plainclothes security agent accosted me at the airport and told me I “wouldn’t be flying” that night.

Fearing that I would be hauled away and that no one would know what had happened to me, I yelled out to a woman who looked to be Western that I was a journalist for The Washington Times and that she should contact my editor with news of my arrest.

The security guard pummeled me to punish me for resisting arrest and stuffed me into the back of a car with my head between my knees. Days later, as I sat in a cell in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, I wondered whether I would be held for months like Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi or others accused of promoting a “velvet” revolution.

The 8-by-5-foot cell was high-ceilinged and had a window abutting the roof that was striped with 17 metal bars. A bathroom adjoined the cell and held a battered metal sink, a Turkish toilet and a shower head directly over the hole. Two fixtures in the ceiling provided constant light and introduced me to a disorienting world without darkness. The only reading matter was a Koran in Arabic.

Without a watch, I marked time by the Fajr, Zohr and Maghreb — the three audible prayers in Shi’ite Islam — and by meal times. The food was not bad: rice known as pollo served with meat or chicken and a healthy yogurt drink called doog. I ate sparingly, seeking to prepare my body for the possibility that I might go on a hunger strike if the bogus espionage charges against me ever went before a court. In three weeks, I lost 22 pounds.

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