RFE/RL – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Author)
Russian journalist and author Yulia Yuzik, who was detained in Tehran for more than a week, says Iranian interrogators accused her of working for Israel and "destroyed me psychologically" before her surprise release.
"They were sure that Yuzik was a Jewish surname, there was no doubt that I was Jewish and worked as an analyst for the Israeli secret services," she told RFE/RL's Russian Service in an interview published on October 12.
Yuzik, who had previously lived and worked as a journalist in Iran, was stopped on September 29 when she arrived in Tehran for a private visit.
Her passport was seized at Imam Khomeini Airport. On October 2, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officers detained her at her hotel.
She was taken to an unknown jail, where she was held in isolation and underwent numerous interrogations, she said.
Officially, the Iranian government said that she was being held for visa violations and that her case had nothing to do with "counterespionage," but people close to Yuzik said otherwise.
Her ex-husband, journalist Boris Voitsekhovsky, said that Yuzik had told her mother in a brief telephone call that she had been accused of having ties to Israeli intelligence services. He wrote in a Facebook post that she faced 10 years in prison.
And one of her daughters, writing on her mother's Facebook account, said Yuzik faced "huge problems" and that a court hearing on October 5 "will decide her fate."
Work In Iran
The detention of Yuzik, a well-known author who in 2016 ran for the State Duma with the opposition PARNAS party, attracted widespread attention from across the political and social spectrums.
Media coverage prompted a grassroots petition that collected 45,000 signatures calling for Yuzik's release. Reporters Without Borders on October 8 called for her immediate release and decried that that she had been denied legal and consular access. And Russia's Foreign Ministry summoned Iran's ambassador to explain the circumstances of Yuzik's arrest to Moscow.
None of this was known to Yuzik as she sat alone in a concrete-floored cell furnished with only a few blankets.
"Sitting in my cell for the first day, I blamed myself very much for being so wrong and placing my family in such risk," she told RFE/RL.
Yuzik previously worked in Iran as a correspondent for a Russian media outlet, and is the author of two bestsellers -- Brides Of Allah, about women suicide bombers; and Requiem For Beslan, in which she interviewed survivors of the 2004 Beslan school massacre in Russia's North Ossetia.
She said that after encountering stagnation in her career in Russia she decided in 2017 to accept an offer to work again in Iran, "not realizing what kind of channel was calling."
Iran Today is a program of PressTV, a 24-hour network that broadcasts to foreign markets. Yuzik, a mother of four, said she was set up with an apartment, given a visa, and told to bring her children.
She said that for a couple months she "sincerely tried to make small news items from Iran. But then she decided it was not for her and, on the pretext that her son was sick, she left.
Russian media have reported that her recent trip was at the invitation of her former boss at Iran Today.
Speaking to RFE/RL, Yuzik suggested that she had been set up, and that her ordeal might be related to a Facebook page she created after she left Iran to share her expertise on the Middle East. She said she wrote short analytical observations regarding events that concerned Iran, but that she "underestimated the danger" of including Israeli news on the page.
Among the developments she wrote about was the reported defection of IRGC Brigadier General Ali Nasiri in April.
"I was one of the first in Russia to write that the head of Iranian counterintelligence fled either to Israel or to America," she said. "When I ended up in this cell, I started thinking that perhaps he hadn't fled -- maybe it was all some kind of propaganda fake."
"Imagine -- he is still in Iranian counterintelligence, and I, who wrote that he was an agent for the Israeli secret services, am returning to Iran," she said. "Perhaps they just turned the situation around on me -- accusing me of working for Israel."
Another scenario, she said, was that "even if he fled to Israel, perhaps they [the Iranian authorities] just took revenge on me."
Ultimately, she said, her fate was decided on the evening of October 9 "at the highest level in Iran."
"On the last day, the investigators who conducted the interrogation gave me complete hell, broke me, and destroyed me psychologically," she said. "They left at around 2 p.m. and told me that someone would return for me in the evening, when it's getting dark, and that either they or people from the IRGC would do something to me that I couldn't even imagine."
When the time came she was blindfolded and taken by car to an unknown destination by the same IRGC officers who detained her.
"They lifted me up, I smell that it's some kind of underground garage, some kind of parking, I hear us going by elevator," she said of her arrival. "I have a blindfold, I see only men's legs, shoes. A lot of men, they lead me somewhere. They remove the blindfold."
Yuzik saw that she was in a quiet reception hall, but did not realize she was at the airport when an employee from the Russian Embassy entered.
"Yulia Viktorovna, I congratulate you, you will be released now, and officially transferred to Russia," she recalled the man saying.
She arrived in Moscow early in the morning of October 10, but she told RFE/RL that she had "a feeling that the story has not yet ended."
She said that her mobile phone, which she said contained evidence that she had been lured to visit Iran, was confiscated. Her bank cards were taken, she said, along with gifts she had purchased in the brief window between her passport being taken and her detention at her hotel.
"They specifically sought to humiliate me," she said.
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