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California Grad Student Imprisoned in Iran Returns to U.S.

A graduate student who was imprisoned for a month in Iran and barred from leaving the country for nearly a year has returned to Los Angeles.

Esha Momeni, 29, was charged with acting against Iran's national security and held mainly in solitary confinement after conducting research on the Iranian women's rights movement for her thesis at California State University, Northridge.

In a phone interview with The Associated Press on Friday, Momeni said she arrived in Los Angeles this week and, once her exhaustion passes, she wants to continue working on Iranian rights issues.

Momeni's arrest came on Oct. 15, after she was pulled over by armed intelligence agents and taken to her family's Tehran home, where her thesis research was confiscated. Her computer and video interviews with activists were among the things taken by the agents.

Prior to her arrest, Momeni's research in Iran consisted of interviews with members of the women's movement, focusing on the One Million Signatures campaign which calls for equity in the law between genders.

Iran's judiciary system favors men in divorce and child custody cases, bars women from becoming judges, and considers a woman's testimony to be a fraction of that of a man's, leading to countless rulings that broadly favor men, according to the activist group.

She spent 25 days of her 28-day term in solitary confinement and was interrogated 19 times. Momeni said she was not physically tortured and, as a dual citizen of the U.S. and Iran, her treatment was more humane than others held in notorious Evin prison.

"The experience I had in prison was not nearly as hard as those of other political prisoners," said Momeni. "And now, since the elections, things have become much more dangerous for them."

A security crackdown on protesters and politicians opposed to incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the wake of Iran's contested June 12 presidential elections resulted in hundreds of arrests. Allegations of rape and torture have been made by senior opposition politicians and released protesters.

Momeni called for more public support of political prisoners still held in Evin "because it really makes a difference for their situation."

Momeni was freed in November, but the Iranian government barred her from leaving the country by holding her passports. After her documents were returned to her, she attempted to leave, but was barred from flying out of Iran at a Tehran airport.

"Being outside the prison was much harder than inside prison" because she felt watched and didn't feel safe on Tehran streets, said Momeni.

The United States and Iran have not had formal diplomatic relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but in March, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton took the unusual step of sending a letter asking the Iranian government's permission for Momeni, Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi and retired FBI agent Robert Levinson to leave Iran.

Saberi was convicted of espionage before being released on an appeal in May. Levinson was last seen on Iran's Kish Island on March 8, 2007. He disappeared in Iran while investigating cigarette smuggling for a client of his private security firm.

CSUN Gender and Women's Studies Chair Nayereh Tohidi said Momeni "was never a political girl before her trip" and that the Iranian government "really took her without any good reason. It was simply the paranoia of the government of Ahmadinejad and their fear of this type of coverage of Iranian society."

Friday was a weekend day in Iran and officials there could not be reached for comment.

CSUN Professor Melissa Wall is Momeni's adviser and said her work is "very high quality, on an academic level" but prior to her trip to Iran, her thesis committee was very concerned about her safety when she proposed going to Iran.

"But she was very determined," said Wall.

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