The freelance reporter who had been held in an Iranian jail while covering the country’s presidential election and violent aftermath for The Washington Times said Friday that he was pummeled at Tehran’s airport, interrogated while blindfolded and held in a wing of a facility with thousands of anti-government demonstrators.
“A gentleman wearing a uniform said I wouldn’t be flying tonight,” said Iason Athanasiadis, recalling the first moments of his 18-day detention that began with his arrest at the Tehran airport June 17.
Mr. Athanasiadis, 30, said he was confident about disproving the Iranian government’s accusation of espionage but grew uncertain during the first round of questioning at Tehran’s notorious Evin prison because he was blindfolded and slapped once by interrogators who seemed convinced of his guilt and were just pressing for evidence.
However, he said, the second and final rounds of questioning with Intelligence Ministry interrogators were more objective and less intimidating because they put on surgical masks and took off his blindfold so they could see each other eye to eye.
Mr. Athanasiadis said that from the bottom of his blindfold, he could glimpse rows of prisoners sitting on the ground with their heads between their knees and interviews being conducted in hallways because the interrogation rooms were full.
He said that he was isolated in a continuously lit, 5-by-8 cell and that he was kept during the latter part of his stay in a section of the prison reopened during the postelection violence.
The protests in the streets of Tehran continued Friday with thousands of people assembling again in the city’s Revolution Square amid reports of government security forces using violence.
Officials say about 20 people have been killed since the June 12 elections, in which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected. Mir Hossein Mousavi, the main opposition candidate, insists he was the victor.
Mr. Mousavi’s supporters say as many as 250 people have been killed. The protesters’ calls for a recount have been only partially met, and the vote tally has been declared final.
Mr. Athanasiadis told The Times’ “America’s Morning News” radio program Friday that he likely was targeted for detention because he spoke fluent Farsi and was not a full-time reporter for a major news-gathering organization, which made him “vulnerable.”
“There was this Greek guy running around with a lot of friends on the ground,” said Mr. Athanasiadis, referring to himself. He is a dual citizen of Greece and Britain and has studied and worked in Iran for more than two years.
Describing his arrest while waiting to fly out of Tehran, Mr. Athanasiadis took responsibility for his treatment at the airport and said he was not mistreated while detained.
“That’s my fault,” he said. “I decided to resist arrest and get the word out that I was being arrested. I didn’t want to just disappear. … That led to them hauling me off and giving me a couple of punches to keep me quiet.”
But once the interrogations started, the officials were extremely kind and polite, he said.
“There was no humiliation, which was the most important thing to me,” he said.
Mr. Athanasiadis said an American woman jotted down the details of the airport incident and called The Times’ newsroom.
He made clear he was arrested for suspected espionage - not overstaying his seven-day visa or violating journalism ethics, as was widely reported.
“I was fascinated to see what evidence they had about me,” Mr. Athanasiadis said.
That evidence was a 2005 photograph of him talking with a British diplomat and romantic text messages on a mobile phone he had borrowed from a friend, Mr. Athanasiadis said in interviews Friday, including ones with CNN and the Associated Press.
His detention coincided with a diplomatic tit-for-tat between Tehran and London that was triggered by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, calling Britain the “most evil” of Iran’s enemies during an address to the nation June 19. Over the next week, both countries expelled several diplomats.
When Mr. Athanasiadis was freed Sunday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hasan Qashqavi said the reporter had originally traveled to Iran using a British passport. Mr. Qashqavi said when Mr. Athanasiadis returned on his Greek passport, he became involved in encouraging demonstrators to protest the election results and was arrested because of this perceived unprofessional behavior. The spokesman gave no specifics.
Times Executive Editor John Solomon has thanked the governments of Greece and Iran for Mr. Athanasiadis’s release.
“We’d like to publicly thank the Greek government for its relentless efforts to free Iason from captivity and to express our appreciation to Iran’s government for listening to our private humanitarian pleas, setting aside whatever difference it had with Western governments and allowing Iason to reunite with his family, which had suffered so much anguish these last two weeks,” Mr. Solomon said in a statement.
Mr. Athanasiadis was thought to be the only non-Iranian detained. A Newsweek correspondent, Maziar Bahari, a dual Iranian-Canadian citizen, is still in custody, along with more than a dozen Iranian journalists.
Kian Tajbakhsh, an Iranian-American urban planner and former adviser to the World Bank, who spent several months in an Iranian prison in 2007 on unspecified charges, was again arrested late Thursday after a day of renewed protests, according to Hadi Ghaemi, spokesman for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
Iran’s chief of police, Esmail Ahmadi Moghaddam, recently said that more than 1,000 people have been arrested in postelection violence and that two-thirds have been freed. Human rights groups say as many as 2,000 people have been arrested.
“It’s absolutely brilliant to be back in the Mediterranean,” said Mr. Athanasiadis, now in Athens with his parents.
He said he received no news reports while in prison, except when he was visited by a Greek diplomat. However, he could hear from his cell window protesters shouting “Allahu Akbar [God is great]” in a form of passive resistance.
Besides the Greek government and The Times, the Washington-based Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists helped in Mr. Athanasiadis’ release.
Mr. Athanasiadis is a graduate of Oxford University and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University from 2007 to 2008. He also is a photojournalist and TV producer who reported from North Africa, the Levant, Egypt, Syria and the Arab nations of the Persian Gulf.
Michelle Bollman and Barbara Slavin contributed to this report.