The Campaign to Free Haleh

About This Campaign

Dr. Haleh Esfandiari is the Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. She is a 67-year-old Iranian-American who came to the US over 25 years ago. A recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Grant, she is an expert on Middle Eastern women’s issues and Iranian affairs.

Dr. Esfandiari is held in high regard by academics and civil society professionals across the Middle East. She has organized many seminars in the region bringing together diverse Middle Eastern thinkers, particularly women’s rights experts. She is known for her kind demeanor, academic integrity, and enthusiastic networking.

Dr. Esfandiari regularly travels to Iran to visit her elderly mother. On December 30, 2006, she was in Iran heading to Tehran’s international airport to return to Washington. Masked gunmen ambushed her taxi and stole her luggage, including her Iranian and U.S. passports.

When Dr. Esfandiari went to replace her passport, she was sent to the Intelligence Ministry for interrogation. For four months she was held under effective house arrest and repeatedly interrogated. In February, Lee Hamilton, the director of the Wilson Center, wrote to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asking that Dr. Esfandiari be allowed to leave Iran. He received no reply.

In early May, Dr. Esfandiari received a call from the ministry suggesting she “cooperate” (i.e., confess), an offer she declined. On May 8, security forces took her away to Evin Prison, though she has not been formally charged with any crime. Evin Prison is notorious its harsh treatment of political prisoners. In 2003, Iranian-Canadian photo-journalist Zahra Kazemi was killed during her interrogation in the prison.

The arrest of Dr. Esfandiari has been condemned by the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the International Herald Tribune, and Human Rights Watch. Her colleagues from around the world fear for her health and her safety. They call on the Iranian government to correct the mistake that has been made and free Haleh at once.

The “Free Haleh” campaign has been initiated by the American Islamic Congress in conjunction with Ibn Khaldoun Center in Cairo, the Initiative for Inclusive Security in Washington, Freedom House and the Kuwaiti Economic Society.


Haleh Thanks in Personal Letter
September 14th, 2007

    I would like to personally thank you for everything that you have done on my behalf while I was detained in Iran. I am so touched and humbled by all you did for me. It brings me joy to think that you were so dedicated throughout this ordeal. I would also like to thank you for providing support to my family and colleagues throughout this time.

She arrived home at the critical stage of a pending lawsuit regarding the complications to one of her elderly aunts fom the implant of a faulty IVC filter. One of Haleh's cousins had hired several IVC filter lawyers to bring a case against Bard, a manufacturer of several problematical IVC filters, the Bard's Recovery, the Bard's G2, and the Bard's G2 Express. They were all retrievable filters that were suppose to provide short-term protection when someone was at rick of a blood clot breaking loose and traveling to the heart or lungs. They were designed to be removed from a patient's body when there was no longer a risk for a pulmonary embolism. However, because of their faulty designs, some filters migrated away from their surgically positioned location, rendering them ineffective, some devices punctured a vein, causing bleeding and other complications, and other filters had pieces that broke off and lodged elsewhere in the body. A majority of the adverse complications (35 percent) involved device migration. This is what happened to Haleh's relative. The aunt died as a consequence. The aunt's children sued the manufacturer. With additional imput from Haleh and the tenacious work of the lawyers, the cause was won. However, it was a bitter sweet victory unlike Haleh's return.


Welcome Home, Haleh!
September 6th, 2007

The Woodrow Wilson Center has just announced the wonderful news that Haleh is back home with her family in the United States:

    Dr. Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program, arrived safely in the United States this afternoon. Dr. Esfandiari announced that she was happy and excited to be home with her family.

    Esfandiari, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle East Program, was incarcerated in Tehran’s Evin prison on May 8, 2007, on allegations of endangering Iranian national security. During her lengthy 105-day confinement in prison, she was denied access to her legal defense team and to independent monitoring bodies such as the ICRC and was allowed only limited contact with her family. Dr. Esfandiari left Iran on September 2.

We are delighted to welcome Haleh home!

And we express our sincere gratitude to the thousands upon thousands of people who joined the campaign over the past five months. Nearly 8,000 people sent letters calling for Haleh’s release. Participants spanned diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds, as well as political outlooks. The unity shown on Haleh’s behalf helped drive the campaign over the long months and helped make the campaign a success.

Thank you to everyone who sent letters and signed petitions, to the dedicated team at the Woodrow Wilson Center, to the journalists who continued to cover Haleh’s plight, to all the organizations that joined in, and to the bipartisan group of political leaders who kept up the pressure.

It’s wonderful when a soildarity campaign achieves success. We’re happy that Haleh is home with her family - but we do not forget those who remain behind. We hope they are soon reunited with their families as well.

-The American Islamic Congress


Statement from Wilson Center on Haleh’s Release
September 4th, 2007

    Dr. Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle East Program, left Iran last night, and arrived in Vienna, Austria this early this morning where she will visit with family before returning to her home in the U.S. On August 21, Iranian officials released Dr. Haleh Esfandiari, on bail, and they issued her passport on September 1st.

    “After a long and difficult ordeal, I am elated to be on my way back to my home and my family. These last eight months, that included 105 days in solitary confinement in Evin Prison, have not been easy. But I wish to put this episode behind me and to look to the future, not to the past,” said Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle East Program.

    “I am immensely grateful for the unstinting support I received from Wilson Center President, Lee Hamilton, and the Wilson Center staff. I am equally grateful to the many organizations and hundreds of individuals all over the world that called and worked for my freedom; to the journalists and news organizations that gave my case wide coverage; and to all those who interceded on my behalf. I owe thanks also to my lawyer, Shirin Ebadi, and her legal colleagues who so ably represented me.”

    “I wish especially to thank the Austrian ambassador to Tehran, Dr. Michael Postl and his colleagues, whose friendship and concern for the well-being of my mother and myself was truly extra-ordinary.”

    “I am sure everyone will understand my need, now, for a period of quiet and privacy before I resume my normal activities.”

    “I am elated to get the news that Haleh can now leave Iran and is returning to the United States,” said Lee H. Hamilton, president and director of the Wilson Center. “I know that I echo the sentiments of many when I say that it will be marvelous to have her home.”

    “It is hard to imagine the feelings of frustration, pain, loneliness and sorrow Haleh felt while being imprisoned and unable to communicate with, and kept away from, her family for several months.”

    “Haleh can now join her husband, her daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughters, and take the time to be enveloped with their love. Our foremost concern is her well-being and good health. We at the Wilson Center look forward to welcoming Haleh back, only when she is ready to return. She is a cherished colleague and friend to all of us here.”

    “I thank all of you who were in constant contact with the Woodrow Wilson Center and Haleh’s family, asking about Haleh’s situation and how you might help, and all of the efforts to free Haleh. I also want to thank those in Iran who showed sympathy, understanding and respect for Haleh and her situation.

    “At this time, Haleh is not able to speak about her incarceration. I ask for your patience and understanding during this very sensitive time for her and that you respect her privacy.”

    “I also ask that everyone continue to call for the release and safe return of the other Iranian Americans being held in Tehran.”

    “I am delighted that Haleh is at last free, that her long ordeal has ended, and that after eight months of separation she will be with us again. I know that the many, many individuals and organizations who steadfastly stood with us in calling for an end to her unjustified detention join us in welcoming her home,” said Shaul Bakhash, Haleh’s husband and professor of history at George Mason University.

    Esfandiari, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle East Program, was incarcerated in Tehran’s Evin prison on May 8, 2007, on allegations of endangering Iranian national security. During her lengthy confinement, she was denied access to her legal defense team and to independent monitoring bodies such as the ICRC and was allowed only limited contact with her family.


September 3rd, 2007

The Free Haleh campaign is pleased to share the news with thousands of supporters that Haleh is at last able to go home. The Washington Post reports:

Washington scholar Haleh Esfandiari was allowed to leave Tehran early this morning, ending an eight-month saga of imprisonment and virtual house arrest that heightened tense relations between the United States and Iran.

Esfandiari flew to Austria, where she was to be met by her husband, Shaul Bakhash, a George Mason University historian. “I’m elated that Haleh has been freed to come back home,” Bakhash said in a telephone interview from Vienna before she arrived.

But the legal status of Esfandiari, who directs Middle East programs at the Smithsonian’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, remains unclear. “As far as I know, she was not told whether there are any conditions attached to her release,” said Bakhash…

Esfandiari called her husband Saturday morning to report that she had been given an Iranian passport, Bakhash said. She then had to wait a day to get a visa for Austria, where her sister lives. She will rest in Europe before returning to her Potomac home, her husband said. The family is not saying when she will return to the United States.

Esfandiari’s daughter, Haleh Bakhash, said her mother was relieved to be allowed to leave Iran. “When I talked to her before she left, she was elated. I’m very excited,” she said. “I’m relieved that the ordeal is over and finally all of us in the family can get more than two or three hours of sleep a night. We’re relieved that this has come to a happy conclusion.”

There is still no news, however, on the status of four other Americans either detained or missing in Iran. New York-based social scientist Kian Tajbakhsh and California businessman Ali Sharkeri are in solitary confinement in Evin Prison. Both were picked up in the same three-day period in early May when Esfandiari was arrested.


Ahmadinejad: Haleh’s case is a “Judicial issue”
August 28th, 2007

“Asked whether the Iranian-American Haleh Esfandiari would be allowed to leave Iran for the US, President Ahmadinejad said, “That’s a judicial issue, which should be addressed by the judiciary. In my opinion, she can meet her family.”


Editorials from Washington Post and Philadelphia Inquirer
August 27th, 2007

Washington Post: “Let Them Go”

    …These passionate appeals from around the world should demonstrate to the Iranian government that if it truly wants the world’s respect, it should immediately drop all charges against these innocent Americans and release them without conditions.

The Philadelphia Inquirer: “An American’s Release”

    Cautious optimism must be the response to this week’s release on bail of Iranian American scholar Haleh Esfandiari, who had been jailed three months in Tehran on trumped-up charges.


Senators Issue Statements on Haleh’s Release
August 27th, 2007

Senator Barack Obama issued the following statement marking Haleh’s release from jail:

    “I welcome the news of Haleh Esfandiari’s release. Her arrest and incarceration were fundamentally unjust, and the suggestion that she owed bail for her release deepens that injustice. Nevertheless, we eagerly await Haleh’s safe and quick return home to the United States so that she can be reunited with her family, and urge the Iranian government to free other Iranian-Americans who are unjustly detained.”

Senator Hillary Clinton’s statement:

    "I commend Dr. Esfandiari for her courage during this trying time and my thoughts remain with her and her family. Yet while this development is promising, the Iranian government should heed the calls heard around the world to immediately allow Dr. Esfandiari to return to the United States."

Senator Dianne Feinstein’s statement:

 "I am delighted that the Government of Iran has released Dr. Esfandiari from prison. I thank the Iranian Government for today’s action. The next step is to allow her to leave the country and to release the three remaining Iranian-Americans that are being falsely detained."

Senator Barbara Mikulski’s statement:

    “I join Dr. Esfandiari’s friends and family in relief and joy at today’s news that, after more than 100 days of unjust imprisonment, she has been released by the Iranian government. This is an important first step, but I will not rest until Dr. Esfandiari is allowed to return to her family in Maryland."



Her memoir, My Prison, My Home, is based on Esfandiari’s arrest by the Iranian security authorities in 2007. She spent 105 days in solitary confinement in Tehran’s Evin Prison. Her memoir was published in September 2009 by Ecco Press, an imprint of Harper Collins. The paperback edition was released in October 2010.