Iranian-Canadian journalist talks of prison ordeal

Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari says he was regularly beaten and threatened with execution while imprisoned in Iran for 118 days.

Recalls death threats, beatings

Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari says he was regularly beaten and threatened with execution while imprisoned in Iran for 118 days.

Maziar Bahari kisses baby Marianna. Bahari was released from Tehran's Evin Prison on Oct. 17, just days before his daughter's birth. ((CBC/Nancy Durham) )

Bahari spoke to CBC's Nancy Durham about what happened in Tehran's Evin Prison, where he was taken after his arrest during the post-presidential election protests in Iran.

Bahari was reporting for Newsweek when he was arrested at his home on June 21, a number of days after witnessing one of the street protests.

After a worldwide campaign for his freedom he was released from prison in October and reunited with his wife in London just in time for the birth of their first child.

Bahari made Canada his home in 1987, but the allure of Iran drew him back over the past decade — even though he says he expected that one day he'd be arrested.

Last June's protests gave the authorities a reason. They decided Bahari was a spy and began efforts to force a confession.

Punches, threats and insults

"When they took me to the interrogation room, I had a blindfold on and I could just see little bit from under the blindfold and I saw my interrogator's feet and he had slippers on, and that was a bad sign, because slippers meant he was making himself comfortable."

The journalist also spoke of the death threats and other interrogation tactics.

"Almost during every interrogation session I was told by him that he was going to execute me and he also told me that he'd make sure that he would be the person who is going to kick the chair off my feet … so when I was being woken up at 4 o'clock in the morning sometimes I thought, maybe that's it. I didn't know."

Bahari described being insulted repeatedly, slapped, punched, hit with a belt and having his ear squeezed, daily. Inevitably he thought about death.

"I thought maybe it's better just to finish myself before they can do anything," he said. "And I would just say, don't be stupid. Don't do their job for them. If they want to kill you they can do it themselves, but don't co-operate at all."

Bahari said he felt the walls were closing in around him while in solitary confinement, but he was comforted as he hummed the words to Leonard Cohen's song, Sisters of Mercy. He said the title came to him in a dream about two women who both looked like his sister.

"And all of a sudden this universe was created, this universe that was guarded by Mr. Leonard Cohen, and it was just ridiculous to me that this old Jewish [man], and one of the most cynical poet songwriters in the world, managed to save me in the heart of the Islamic Republic."

Daily Show spoof taken literally

That wasn't the only imaginary parallel world in prison. The journalist recalled one particularly bizarre exchange with his interrogator, who believed that Jon Stewart's political satire, The Daily Show, offered proof that his prisoner was a spy and was working with other spies.

Bahari had participated in a send-up interview with Canadian comic Jason Jones, whom the interrogator didn't realize was just an actor on the television comedy and not a real spy.

"One day my interrogator told me that, 'We have video evidence of you working as a spy,' and then when he put the DVD of The Daily Show in the laptop, I just thought, 'Oh my God.'"

Bahari said Jones acted like "this really red-neck American who didn't know anything about the Middle East and pretended to be a spy. He called me Mr. Pistachio."

"And I told my interrogator, I hope you’re not suggesting that he’s a real spy and he said, 'Well, he looks very suspicious, and why should he pretend to be a spy — why should he choose you for an interview?'"

Now that life is returning to normal, Bahari is focusing on his family: his wife, Paola Gourley, and their daughter.

"I have to change nappies at four in the morning. That keeps me going, and as a person I'm happy, but I'm also very sad for my colleagues and my friends who are still languishing in Iranian jail and the people in Iran who have to live with this system."

Bahari vows to campaign for those still in Iran without a voice or profile of any kind. Around 80 people have been jailed and five sentenced to death in connection with the unrest.