October 24, 2008

Iranian-American student arrested in Iran, groups call for release

Washington DC – A graduate student from California State University-Northridge has been imprisoned in Iran for more than a week, with calls for her release going unheeded by Iranian authorities, according to rights groups and media reports.

Esha Momeni, who was born in Los Angeles and holds dual US-Iranian citizenship, was working on her master’s thesis on Iranian women’s rights groups when she was reportedly pulled over for a routine traffic violation.  According to media accounts, the police officer then escorted Esha to her home where authorities confiscated her computer as well as video footage of interviews she had conducted as part of her research into the women’s activist group “Change for Equality.” 

She was then detained and is said to be imprisoned in Tehran’s Evin Prison, though officials have not announced any charges. 

According to her thesis advisor, communications professor Melissa Wall, Momeni was not participating in anti-government actions, nor was she in Iran to agitate for political or religious reform.  “She is not some crazed, radical person,” Wall said.  “She is a lovely young woman who wanted to document these Iranian women’s lives. She did not have some big agenda.”

Iranian officials had offered to release Miss Momeni on the condition that news of her arrest was kept secret, according to some reports.  Momeni’s parents decided to publicize their daughter’s case after they attempted to submit an inquiry with the Iranian Revolutionary Court five days after her arrest, only to be told not to return until the investigation has been completed.

University President Jolene Koester issued a statement yesterday, calling Momeni “a student invested in learning and understanding current conditions in the country of her family’s origin.”  “Anyone who values knowledge and the role of academic inquiry in shedding light on the human condition should be concerned” by her arrest, Koester said. 

“I’m aware that such things happen in Iran,” Wall said, “but I’m confident that they have nothing to fear from Esha’s research project.  It is simply an academic exercise, not meant for publication outside of academic circles. I cannot image why she should be held in detention.”

Amnesty International issued an urgent plea on Tuesday, expressing concern that she might be tortured or otherwise mistreated while in custody, and urging Iranian officials “to release her immediately and unconditionally.”

A blog has been set up by friends and relatives of Miss Momeni, where visitors are encouraged to sign a petition for her immediate release.  University officials are also currently in the process of contacting California Senators Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) for assistance, as well as Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), the Department of State, and Iranian Ambassador to the UN Mohammad Khazaee.

News of Momeni’s arrest was particularly disturbing for Cal State-Northridge, said Provost Harold Hellenbrand, since the campus “values intercultural communications a great deal.”  Momeni, he said, “occupies two worlds and was trying to make those two worlds understand each other.”




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