Covering social and contemporary culture, ASMALLMAGAZINE is the online publication of high- end private online community ASMALLWORLD. Below is an interview conducted by ASMALLMAGAZINE’s Jessica Ramakrishnan with Iason Athanasiadis, a Greek photojournalist and ASMALLWORLD member recently released from Iranian prison. It is Iason’s first interview since his release.
After three weeks in Iranian prison cells, Iason Athanasiadis, a photojournalist and ASW-er was released by the country’s authorities. Only days after he walked free in Tehran and returned to Greece, Iason spoke first to ASMALLMAGAZINE about his experience of being caught up in the tumult of present-day Iranian politics.
From press reports, we read that you were on your way out of the country when you were arrested. Tell us what happened.
I had passed passport control in the last hours remaining on my seven-day press visa and was walking to the gate of my Emirates flight from Tehran to Dubai when a man (not in uniform) approached me and asked me if I was Iason Fowden, my passport name. I said yes and he asked me to follow him as “you won’t be flying tonight.” That sounded ominous.
But this is not the first time you’ve been arrested on the job? And I am sure as a correspondent in war zones, you’ve considered something like this happening but how did it feel when it became a reality?
It’s the second. The first (arrest) was by Hezbollah shortly after the 2006 Lebanon War but they held me for only an hour. They released me after realizing that I obviously am a journalist. Detentions in sensitive political environments such as conflict zones are absolutely to be expected and the best thing one can do is cooperate with one’s captors and get a sense for whether they’re pragmatic, practical men or ideological and with an axe to grind. Obviously, I prefer the former.
Media reports indicated that the authorities thought you were a Brit and the implication was that you were part of the British plot behind all the post-election protests. What did your interrogators ask you about this?
They tried to use their British spy allegations as a method of discouraging the Greek ambassador from lobbying for my release. To his eternal credit, he stood by me as a Greek citizen and supported my release to the fullest. Also very involved were His Holiness the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate Bartholomew, Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyianni, who personally handled the case, and a host of other political, business and religious actors who worked behind the scenes to secure my release.
You speak fluent Farsi. Did this make you more suspicious in their eyes?
Apparently even though I explained that the reason for this was that I had studied in Iran, a fact backed up by three years of student visas in my passport. The guards quite liked being able to chat with a foreigner in Persian and my skills were certainly rejuvenated by several hours-long interrogations conducted in Persian.
What were the conditions of your detention? Where were you held? What did it look like?
I was held in solitary confinement throughout with ample food, which I opted to desist from in preparation for a possible hunger strike in the event that the espionage allegations be taken to trial level. I was moved around a succession of four cells, two of which were in Evin prison’s Section 209, an Intelligence Ministry-controlled prison, and one was at Imam Khomeini International Airport. In all cells, the lights constantly shone and in one, there were no windows or clocks, creating a confusing and disorienting effect.
How much were you interrogated? Were you mistreated at all?
I was beaten on the evening of my arrest for engaging in passive resistance. The occasional cuff was administered by my first interrogator but the last pair were gentlemen, sophisticated and enough in control of their questioning to not have to strike me to get answers. Not that hitting me worked. It made me more donkey-headed and unlikely to collaborate. Us Greeks must be won over and convinced to cooperate – beatings make us stubborn.
What did you think of when you were alone?
I dived deep into my past and dredged up memories and images that had lain fallow for years. I went back to childhood a lot and favourite places such as Evia and Aegina, islands to which my parents took me as a child. I relived ‘perfect days’ and read the Quran, which was the only reading matter the guards provided me with. I sang old Greek leftist resistance songs, which I had been taught at school, and watched the shifting daylight reflect off the bars of the window. I counted the journo friends I had in every Greek TV and print outlet and wondered what they were doing about my case in their media…
You were the only foreign reporter arrested but many Iranian bloggers and press people were also rounded up. Where you held together and what are your hopes for their freedom?
I was in isolation throughout. But from the educated tenor of the prisoners’ voices that I heard from my cell during mealtimes, I could judge that I was probably surrounded by political prisoners and was not in a criminal ward. They lack the support that I had as a foreign citizen and also the good treatment afforded by captors worried about their testimonies when they are returned to society. I pray for their release. No one should have to suffer those conditions merely for a set of political beliefs.
What are your thoughts about the Iranian situation now, especially since it’s been knocked off the news (in the U.S. at least) by the death of Michael Jackson?
It’s an internal Iranian political affair that will be resolved by the Iranians themselves. The West should not wade into it. I’m a great fan of natural evolution. When a society is ready in its majority, it will shift.
You’ve got a long and deep connection with the country. Do you think you’ll ever go back to Iran? Will you even be allowed back?
I was not told that I won’t be allowed back and I certainly have thoroughly been filtered now by the Intelligence Ministry for them to know exactly who I am. I love Iran and have lived, loved and laughed there. It has shaped me as a person in a way that only my home country and my British education have managed. But before going back I’d like to have an assurance that I won’t be arrested again.
You’re quite the quintessential nomad, how did coming home this time feel?
It wasn’t so much the coming home as the walking under clear blue skies without a blindfold on and a guard steering you that was a breath of fresh air. Freedom never felt so good. You don’t know how good it is until you’ve lost it.
This post originally appeared at ASMALLMAGAZINE.