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June 24th, 2009
05:37 PM ET

American tourist tells harrowing tale of run-in with Basij

Editor's Note: Michelle May is an American and Irish national who was briefly detained and questioned by the Basij while visiting Tehran this past Saturday amidst Iran's election protests.

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="Michelle May is an American and Irish national who was detained and questioned by the Basij in Tehran last Saturday."]

By: Michelle May
Special to CNN

The day after Iran's Supreme Leader delivered his Friday prayer at Tehran University the streets of Tehran felt eerily quiet. Although friends translated his prayer to me, I went to a net café to read western analysis of what the Ayatollah said. I tried to access CNN online, but the government had slowed down the Internet to keep Iranians feeling isolated that week.

As I waited for the news to load a young man named Ali offered to help me. I expressed my annoyance to him over the slowed Internet speed, and the fact that Facebook, Gmail, Twitter and the BBC had all been blocked. “Our government is very bad,” he said. I nodded my head slightly.

Just then CNN’s page miraculously loaded. The word “bloodshed” stuck out in the headline next to a photo of the white-bearded Supreme Leader. It wasn’t reassuring.

Ali helped me hail a taxi to Valiasr Square to meet a friend for coffee. The taxi quickly moved through streets that were normally clogged with gridlock traffic. As we approached my destination two motorbikes pulled up on both sides of the taxi, waving for us to pull over. They were Basiji men.

An unfamiliar feeling of terror came over me the moment I recognized one of the men as Ali from the net café. The other three had all the classic Basiji traits: dark beards, husky builds, walkie-talkies, shirts buttoned up to the top, but un-tucked at the bottom for better access to pistols stored in the waist of their trousers.

Ali motioned for me to get out of the car. “No, no, no!” I cried, shaking my head, tears pouring down my face, my mouth going dry, my throat feeling as if it were going to close. Two other motorbikes with Basij came up behind us, along with another car. There were at least 10 of them and one of me. My mind started to race: Who do they possibly think I am, and what have I done for them to make such a production over me?

I attempted to make a scene. I plead with them to leave me alone, hoping that by attracting a crowd they would leave. It didn’t work. They took me by the arms and shoved me into their car. Ali took my Irish passport, questioning me about each and every stamp in it. He rifled through my bag, demanded to know where my mobile phone was. He didn’t believe that I didn’t have one. He continued to examine every object in my bag, looking at pens as potential spy devices. He accused me of being a “terrorist,” a “spy.” He questioned whether or not I had been in Iran a month prior to that to “make trouble in the election process.”

“Why have you been to Iran so many times?!” he shouted at me. I ignored his questions demanding to know where they were taking me. He didn’t answer. We drove around Tehran, attempting to enter a few anonymous-looking barracks on the edge of the city in search of their “boss.” I felt doomed. The idea of going into a barracks scared me. I thought the time had come to jump out of the car and make a getaway. Would they shoot me? Would they let me run?

As soon as I put my hand on the handle, the power locks were quickly employed.

I tried to calm myself. I switched tactics. I told them the truth. I told them how much I loved Iran. I explained how horrible it was that my love affair with Iran was coming to such an abrupt end. I tried to negotiate. I begged Ali to take me to a regular police station, as opposed to a Basij barracks.

Hundreds of officers and riot police were gathering at police stations all across the city that day as they were clamping down on protesters, with the Supreme Leader’s blessing. As luck would have it, we drove by a station. I pounded on the window and made eye contact with a soldier.

Ali asked the driver to stop the car and agreed to leave me in the care of a regular uniformed police officer — a teddy bear compared to Basij. As we sat in the car another half hour Ali continued to question me about my job, my religion, my marital status and my political views. I begged him not to hurt me. He appeared insulted by my request.

“Trust me,” he said.

Inside the police station I was questioned by a female officer wearing a full black chador. She was young and appeared more fascinated by me than suspicious. “CNN?” “BBC?” she asked. With hand motions I replied, “Reading, not writing.” I think she understood. She brought me to the chief of police, who made a production over some of the Farsi numbers in my passport. Finally he said the only phrase he could muster in English: “It’s okay. No problem.”

I began to hyperventilate. Then fainted. Two women in chadors fed me sugar water.

Two male officers led me to a police truck. I was in a daze as we drove across the city, eventually driving through a gate that looked palatial, especially in comparison to the other places I had been that day. It was the office of the division of police that dealt with foreigners. Again I was questioned, but this time they brought a tray of chocolates and a juice box.

The man who interviewed me spoke perfect English. “What happened?” he asked, apparently puzzled by the police report. I told him of the dramatic Basij abduction. His boss came in and apologized for Basij’s behavior. “We treat all foreigners with great respect, Ms. Michelle May.”

With that I broke down and began to sob. I was relieved the ordeal was over, relieved that I was free. The chief of police also came into the office we were in. He asked the man questioning me to translate: “He said tell her to please stop crying because her tears are killing my soul.”

The man questioning me said it was best to leave the country as soon as possible due to “sensitivities.” I imagined he was embarrassed by what was happening.

I left the next day as he advised, not relaxing until the plane actually lifted off the ground. As it did, I felt overwhelmed by the sense that I was one of the lucky ones allowed to leave. Like many others on the plane I also started to cry out of sadness and immense guilt about the ones we left behind.

Filed under: Iran
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