Two Iranian teens, two reactions to their father's jailing
economist Saeed Laylaz was taken to notorious Evin Prison amid last
year's postelection unrest. Now his son believes speaking out is
futile, and his daughter can't imagine doing otherwise.
By Borzou Daragahi
April 1, 2010
'Daddy, don't you confess!" she implored over the phone, the outburst
of an impulsive teen.
jailers listening in quickly ended the conversation. But 15-year-old
Scheherazade's rash words ultimately meant more to her imprisoned
father than she could imagine.
It was the first time in weeks
she had spoken to her father, Saeed Laylaz, a prominent Iranian
economist and liberal journalist jailed days after disputed elections
last year. For nearly two months, his wife and two children had no idea
where the 44-year-old had been taken or even whether he was still
His imprisonment transformed the lives of Scheherazade
and her 18-year-old brother, Mohammad-Hossein, shoving them out of the
warm cocoon of adolescence into the ruthless and confusing world of
politics, where adults sometimes lie and distort. Like other children
of Iran's thousands of political prisoners, Scheherazade and
Mohammad-Hossein grew up fast.
But the trauma of having their
father taken away from them affected each child differently, convincing
one that speaking out against tyranny is a losing game.
it's not worth it," said Mohammad-Hossein, a quiet, reed-thin young man
with slight whiskers growing on his chin and upper lip. "I think
there's a better way. I imagine a better life than politics."
For Scheherazade, the jailing only fortified her beliefs, her
Outside the gates of Tehran's notorious Evin Prison, a guard once asked
her what crime her father had committed.
"Telling the truth," she says she told him.
first, Scheherazade and Mohammad-Hossein thought their father was
having early-morning guests, some of the dozens of politicians,
journalists and activists who regularly visited his home and office at
Sarmayeh, or Capital, the now-banned daily newspaper where he wrote
articles critical of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's economic policies.
teenagers slumbered blissfully amid the commotion, sleeping in late
during a break from classes. It was June 17, and the streets were
raging with protests in the wake of Ahmadinejad's disputed reelection.
I realized they were in my room," Mohammad-Hossein said. "They were
looking for computers. They looked all over the house."
got dressed and went into the living room. She tried to say something
to her father but was told to shut up. Their mother served the
plainclothes security officials tea before they took her husband away.
Then she served the kids breakfast.
Their mother, Sepharnaz
Panahi, began a daily routine of shuttling between the gates of Evin
and the entrance to the Revolutionary Court, bearing the late-summer
heat as she sought details about her husband's imprisonment.
children rarely saw her at home during the day. Her worries were
multiple. Laylaz was the family's breadwinner, and concerns about money
began to mount.
One day the phone rang and Scheherazade picked
up. It was her father, calling from prison. For several seconds she was
silent, not knowing what to say. Laylaz told her his "work here" was
nearly finished, and that he would be home soon, maybe after a week.
Scheherazade was elated. She called her mother and grandmother and all
the week passed. Then another, and another, and it became clear that
the government would not release him any time soon. Occasionally he
called home to tell his family that he was OK, but his voice was thin,
his words spare.
Then, with no warning, he appeared on
television as one of the dozens of defendants in a series of mass
trials of opposition supporters and activists. One by one, prominent
opposition figures publicly confessed to being part of a Western-backed
conspiracy to undermine the Islamic Republic.
Only the most
adamant hard-liners believed the confessions, which were nevertheless a
demoralizing and humiliating illustration of the state's power against
But even if the trials weakened the resolve of
some, they strengthened the determination of others, like the feisty
"I want to study law and become a lawyer," she
said, her brown-gray eyes filled with steely confidence. "I want to
fight for the rights of women and children."
and school began. Most of Iran's teachers tend to be liberal-minded,
and they supported the opposition movement. They heard about Laylaz's
imprisonment from satellite news channels, and treated Scheherazade and
Mohammad-Hossein with sympathy.
But some of the students glared at them, though no one confronted them
tell everyone I am very upset about what has happened," Scheherazade
said during a lengthy conversation in Tehran. "But I am also very proud
of my father. We [students] debate a lot about events in the country.
There's disagreement, but it's respectful."
dreams of becoming an airline pilot, but his studies collapsed as he
became distracted. He whiled away his time playing soccer with friends.
"I say, let's go abroad," he said. "Let's go abroad and work and build
plunged deeper into her studies, perhaps, she said, as a way to forget
the troubles at home. She also tried to keep some semblance of a normal
life, going to the movies or shopping with her friends like any other
The family settled into a gloomy routine. At twilight
on some days, they headed to the gates of the prison, where they sought
word about Laylaz and befriended the families of other prisoners during
makeshift picnics and protests on the small, dusty field near the
In talks with other children of dissidents, they
also learned that weeks in solitary confinement and the psychological
pressure of interrogations that can last a dozen hours often damage
personalities, making readjustment difficult. They worried about how
Laylaz might be changed if he was released.
In early December,
word came that Laylaz had been sentenced to nine years in prison and 74
lashes for spreading propaganda against the regime, public disorder and
collusion to conspire against national security. The sentence was
trimmed to six years a few months later.
"My friends joked that I'd be visiting my dad in prison with my own
kids," Scheherazade said.
was months into his imprisonment when the family first had a chance to
see him. Laylaz looked pale and gaunt as he sat with his wife and
children for 50 minutes in a garden at the prison complex.
brought him some history books and fresh fruit, which delighted him. He
asked about the family's finances. Had loans been repaid? Were they
able to access his bank account? Scheherazade tried not to cry, but
He urged her and Mohammad-Hossein not to get in
trouble. He told them the interrogators had threatened to lock them up,
and he dreaded the prospect of the pressure they could put on him if
"He was worried about us," Scheherazade said. "He said, 'I will resist
on behalf of the family.' "
he turned to his daughter and thanked her. Locked up in solitary
confinement, he had no idea whether the opposition had been crushed.
His interrogators continued to demand that he confess to crimes in
exchange for more lenient treatment. But his daughter's admonition
indicated that all was not lost, that it was worth it to continue
The fireworks had already begun. It was the last
Tuesday night of the Persian calendar year, a pre-Islamic festivity
known as Chaharshanbeh Souri, when teens set off
firecrackers and Roman candles and jump over bonfires.
family was told that Laylaz might be temporarily freed to spend the
Persian New Year holidays with them. Mohammad-Hossein and Scheherazade
dared not believe it. There had been so many promises.
"Every calendar event that happened, the authorities would say 100% he
would be released on bail," Mohammad-Hossein said.
kept staring at the entrance to the prison as she talked to other
relatives of those inside. She was the first one in the family to spot
what could be the silhouette of her father emerging from the gates.
Dusk had settled, and the light was bad, but finally she made out his
features, and ran to him.
2010 Los Angeles Times