Sports journalist Saeede Fathi is seeking asylum in Austria after she was imprisoned in Iran for two months. (Photo: Masoud Akbari)

‘Breathtakingly hard’: Iranian journalist Saeede Fathi on 2 months in Evin Prison

Saeede Fathabadi, who goes professionally by Saeede Fathi, was living in Vienna last year when she took a reporting trip to her native Iran to gather footage for a documentary about female athletes in the country. The topic is close to her heart; she used to be a professional basketball player but quit after she was unable to play in international competitions that banned the hijab. Iran mandates the head covering for women, including those competing abroad. Instead, Fathi turned to sports journalism and eventually became the first female editor-in-chief of an Iranian sports magazine, Saheban-e Varzesh. 

On her trip back to Iran last August, Fathi, now a freelancer, planned to focus on the challenges for women participating in male-dominated sports in Iran, like figure skating and parkour. But her reporting trip took an unexpected turn when the country exploded with protests after the September death of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa (Jina) Amini, in morality police custody. Fathi was arrested along with dozens of other journalists and held for two months. 

Now back in Vienna, where she is seeking asylum, she spoke with CPJ about her work, her arrest, and her plans to continue her journalism. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. CPJ emailed Iran’s mission to the United Nations in New York for comment but did not receive any response. 

What happened on the day of your arrest? 

The day after the Evin Prison fire on October 16, 2022, I shared a post on my personal Instagram account supporting Niloofar Hamedi, who was both a friend and a colleague [and was in the prison at the time of the deadly blaze]. Approximately three to four hours later, [security forces] rang my doorbell. Around six or seven men carrying cameras, accompanied by a woman, stormed our house. They searched everywhere, and then they told my mother “not to worry, we are taking your daughter to ask her some questions and she will come home in two hours.” However, those two hours turned into two months. 

You were detained in Ward 209 of Evin Prison and interrogated about your work. What specifically did the security services want to know? 

Part of my interrogations revolved around my previous work. They would put articles and reports I had written, mostly about women’s issues, in front of me and ask, “Why did you write this? And what were your intentions?” They mentioned several reports I wrote about allowing women into stadiums. One, “The Bearded Girls,” was about women disguising their appearance to enter stadiums and sports arenas. This report was recognized by the International Sports Press Association.

There was another report, “Jumping Over the City’s Walls,” about women riding motorcycles, which is banned in Iran. I took a ride through the streets of Tehran with a female motorcyclist, who was a member of the Baha’i faith, and I wrote about our experiences that day and the public’s reactions to us. I wrote about the underground sport of female boxing titled “Women’s Boxing Banned.” I also wrote about the challenges faced by female sports writers; I recounted how I was beaten by batons and tear gassed when I went to a stadium; [security forces] forcibly put a chador [a garment covering the hair and body] on me and jailed me for a day in Tabriz. I had sent this article, “We are Journalists, Not Culprits” to the International Sports Press Association. [The interrogators] asked me why I wrote it and sent it to foreigners. They said, “You were trying to inform on us and spy on us.”

Another part of my interrogations revolved around the documentaries I was making. They would ask me why I was making documentaries about women, and what I was looking for and accused me of making them for television networks outside of Iran.

They accused me of working for Persian-language networks based abroad, such as BBC [Persian], Iran International, Radio Farda, Voice of America [Persian News Network], and others. They printed out the phone numbers I had stored in my phone and accused me of collaborating with opposition figures. But this was not true. Those numbers belonged to my old friends and colleagues and we merely communicated as friends. I was not working with them in any manner at that time.

Can you talk about the prison conditions? 

Ward 209 was extremely overcrowded at that time, and there was no actual solitary confinement. Due to the large number of detainees and the limited space available, two to three prisoners were placed together in cells designated for solitary confinement. There were nine of us in a two-by four-meter cell [about 86 square feet], leaving us with barely any room to move around. Even sleeping side by side was challenging due to the lack of space. The cell was poorly ventilated and we sometimes struggled to breathe properly due to the hot weather in Tehran.

When we needed to use the restroom, we had to call the guards to unlock the door for us. Going to the restroom required wearing a blindfold, and sometimes the guards would not come, or they would take a long time to come. We were not provided with pillows, and we had to sleep on the carpeted floor with just a blanket. Since my detention, I’ve been dealing with neck and back pain, for which I continue to undergo physiotherapy. I require injections for my back pain, as I can’t sit properly without them. 

We had outdoor time about once a week, which took place in a small, enclosed courtyard. It had walls on all sides and the ceiling had metal bars. Even during this time, we weren’t allowed to be without headscarves, because there were five to six cameras installed, and they said [male guards] could see us.

We were allowed to shower once or twice a week, but we had only 10 minutes to wash ourselves and our clothes. I have long hair, and they provided us with small hotel size shampoos, which has led to my struggles with hair loss since then. We were permitted to make a weekly phone call to our families, but the calls were limited to about 10 minutes each.

In our cell, there was another journalist named Saba Sherdoust, whose husband, Milad Fadaei-Asl was also detained with her. Unfortunately, even though I was near [journalists] Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi we were separated by a corridor, and I couldn’t see them.

I didn’t experience any physical torture, but there is a lot of mental pressure to bear. All women prisoners were very nice to each other. After a few days we were family to each other. Because your cellmates are the only ones you have in that situation. We went through very difficult days. Interrogations were breathtakingly hard, and many of us would come back from interrogations and experience panic attacks. So, at night we tried to distract ourselves and do something entertaining like singing. 

How were you able to leave Iran after your release from prison? 

I had managed to hide my passport, and fortunately, [the guards] were not able to find it. On December 10, 2022, I was indicted for “collusion and assembly against national security” and “spreading propaganda against the establishment,” and the judge at Branch 2 of the Evin Prison court ordered my release on bail. After that, I was temporarily released until February 11 [the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution], when a symbolic mass pardon was announced by the judiciary. At that time, the interrogators constantly contacted me and told me I was barred from leaving the country, but the judge said I wasn’t. I was at a crossroads. I was told by an acquaintance who worked at the airport that if I left within the next two to three days I could get away, otherwise there was no predicting what might happen to me. And so, I went to the airport, and I was able to leave Iran. But even when I was [en route in] Turkey, I lived with the constant fear of being sent back at any moment. Fortunately, I was able to come to Vienna on March 2nd.

What are your plans going forward? 

I had to seek asylum because I can’t go back to Iran. I am still seeking treatment for the trauma I suffered during my detention. I am undergoing therapy because of the nightmares that have haunted me since my release. I often find myself back in the detention center reliving the conditions there in my nightmares. 

I would like to continue my career as a journalist, a profession I have 20 years of experience and expertise in. Unfortunately, however, I haven’t been able to find any jobs yet. I am currently trying to learn German and improve my English and I hope to be able to be the voice of women and advocate for my colleagues in Iran.