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July 10th, 2009
08:38 AM ET

Iran detainee: I felt my interrogator was objective

[cnn-photo-caption image=
caption="Athanasidis was detained, questioned and taken to Tehran's notorious Evin prison."]

In Iran, days of calm have been shattered. Thousands of demonstrators filled the streets of Tehran to protest last month's presidential election. Since the protest began, 1,000 people have been arrested, including some reporters. A freelance writer and photographer was covering the Iranian election when he was detained by the government. He was held for 20 days before being released.

Iason Athanasidis spoke with Joe John’s from Athens, Greece.

Joe Johns: Start at the beginning. It was about June 17 when you were detained. Could you walk us through it?

Iason Athanasidis: Well it was the last day of my press visa of my seven-day press visa. I was exiting the country with very mixed feelings because it was right in the middle of the most serious demonstrations. Heading to the airport I was picked up after passing through passport control by a gentleman who wasn’t wearing a uniform but said to me I wasn’t going to be flying tonight and there were a couple other gentlemen coming from Tehran who wanted to interview me.

Johns: You lived in Tehran for three years. You're familiar with people in the government. You have associations with them. So given the circumstances, was it a surprise to you or was it pretty predictable?

Athanasidis: I figure that I was one of the most vulnerable people on the ground there because I did not have a proper affiliation in a sense that I freelance for "The Washington Times" and a number of other newspapers. I also knew that because of my 2 1/2 years having lived in Iran, I would be considered of particular interest to the intelligence services. But by the same token, I felt this meant they knew me pretty well. I had several exhibitions of my photography there. I'm not just a journalist but also an artistic photographer and I think that they knew that I’ve been giving a lot of talks in the U.S. in the last year trying to explain Iran to a foreign audience. I thought it was quite unlikely they would be charging me with espionage or anything like that.

Johns: You were detained you were questioned. You were taken to the Evin prison. Could you describe that? It’s notorious with the people familiar with Iran. And give us some sense as to whether this is the kind of thing that would happen to demonstrators and protesters?

Athanasidis: Well, the place was chock full of demonstrators and protestors. In fact the third cell I was moved to, the last cell I was moved to, before I was freed, was an old, not used part of the prison reopened to deal with the excess capacity. I couldn't see around me when I was there because I had to wear a blind fold. I was initially being held in the intelligence ministry control part of the prison so all of the people there were supposedly undercover. I wasn't supposed to see them.

I could see under the bottom of the blind fold there were rows of prisoners sitting on the ground with their heads between their knees. There were other people were being interrogated in the corridors because there was just no capacity in the interrogator room. They were absolutely full to bursting. And at some point my interrogator turned to me and said the people who are being interrogated in the room next us are the terrorists in charge of trying to blow up one of the main mosques here in Tehran.

Johns: As I read about this, it sounds like you were fairly assertive with the people who were holding you. Were you confident enough to challenge them just a bit? And do you think that made any difference?

Athanasidis: Well perhaps there's a certain amount of naiveté on my part because I was convinced I had never done any kind of spying. My innocence would be proven and I would be allowed to go home. Since I've returned, I've had some doubts about the idea that I might have been used as a pawn for negotiations or anything like that. But certainly in terms of my second group of interrogators who were really very objective people, I felt and wanted to get a sort of a deep psychological understanding of what motivated me, I had trust in them. The first interrogator, I felt, decided I was guilty before I came in the room and all he wanted to do was find evidence against me. But in terms of the second and conclusive round, I felt they were objective.

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