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American released from Iran prison describes solitary confinement, constant surveillance

Matthew Trevithick had been studying Farsi at Tehran University when he was arrested and held for 40 days in the notorious Evin prison, accused of trying to overthrow the government. Trevithick, one of the five Americans set free by Iran in mid-January, joins Hari Sreenivasan to recount his experience in solitary confinement and his feeling of constant surveillance during his time in the country.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now we return to the stories of the Americans recently freed from detention in Iran, and turn to our interview with one of those set free on January 16.

    For that, we go to Hari Sreenivasan.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    We heard for the first time today from Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post reporter released from more than 500 days' imprisonment by Iranian authorities. He was part of a prisoner swap with Iran that released four Americans in exchange for Iranians here in the U.S.

    Rezaian spoke at the headquarters of the paper this morning.

  • JASON REZAIAN, The Washington Post:

    For much of the 18 months I was in prison, my Iranian interrogators told me that The Washington Post didn't exist, that no one knew of my plight, and that the United States government wouldn't lift a finger for my release.

    Today, I'm here in this room with the very people who helped prove the Iranians wrong in so many ways.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    There was a fifth American released from prison in Iran, separate from the deal that freed Rezaian and three others. His name is Matthew Trevithick, and he had been held for 40 days in Tehran's notorious Evin prison.

    Trevithick was in Tehran to study Farsi when he was detained late last year.

    He joins me now from New York.

    So, why were you in prison? What did the authorities say?

  • MATTHEW TREVITHICK, Freed From Iranian Prison:

    So, I was arrested and accused of trying to overthrow the Iranian government. And they said I had access to bank accounts with millions of dollars in them, and that I knew the locations of weapons caches around the country.

    And when I pointed out to them that the only things I had in my possession were Farsi textbooks, a newspaper or two, some flash cards and a pencil, well, they weren't very happy to hear that.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Right. So what happened? How were you arrested?

  • MATTHEW TREVITHICK:

    On my way to buy my plane ticket home, I had just talked with my parents the day before on Skype and said, really looking to being home — really looking forward to being home for Christmas and New Year's, and I think my time here is done. I have been here for just over three months. And I have seen some things, and it's time to come home.

    The next morning, I was walking outside of the dorm. It's a student dorm at Tehran University. And just, you know, a few feet from the front gate, three men jumped out of a car, asked me one question, "Matthew?" I said, "Yes."

    And they pushed me into the backseat, and off we went to Evin prison.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    When were the conditions in that prison like? What was the room you were staying in like?

  • MATTHEW TREVITHICK:

    I was in solitary confinement for 29 days. And it's a very small room. It's about six-feet-by-seven-feet, as I measured it. And I'm just over six feet tall myself, so this makes for a pretty cramped — pretty cramped living.

    There's no bed. There's no pillow. You know, it's a concrete floor with a very thin carpet over it that's been very worn. And, you know, that feeling of worn, of things being used was very — I mean, it was a very consistent theme in my time.

    Inside the prison, you are very well — you're very aware that you're in a place where a lot of people have been before you, and most likely a lot of people will be after you.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You were in solitary for that long. Did you meet other prisoners in the time that you were not, and what were they in for?

  • MATTHEW TREVITHICK:

    I did.

    When I started to cross paths with other prisoners, I was moved out of solitary confinement at the evening of day 29, and stayed in what they referred to as a suite — I disagreed with their terminology a bit — where two other prisoners there were, and they had seen other prisoners come and go as well.

    And that's, I think, when you start to become more aware of who you are sharing this building with. It was there that I learned that Jason Rezaian was downstairs. It was there that I learned that newspaper editors, journalists, dissidents, artists, poets, intellectuals, et cetera, were all in the cells nearby.

    And, you know, that also — you draw a small amount of comfort from knowing who you're sharing this building with.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You know, Jason Rezaian mentioned today that he was constantly told that the paper that he worked for didn't exist, right?

    When you're in solitary, you obviously have no access to information that the rest of the world is trying to work on behalf of you to try to get you released. What kept you going through all this?

  • MATTHEW TREVITHICK:

    You know, in fact, before I answer your question, the very first sentence they said to me on day one, you know, within an hour of being taken off the street, my interrogators pacing the — right behind me, and I'm facing a wall and can't see his face.

    And he says, "Do you know who Jason Rezaian is?"

    I said, "Of course. The whole world knows that name." And he said, next sentence, "He's never leaving, and neither are you."

    And that was the tone by which we started. That set the tone for my time there.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, did you imagine that the United States government was working on your behalf or your parents?

  • MATTHEW TREVITHICK:

    Yes, absolutely.

    I had a very simple check-in system with my mother every day. We'd shoot each other a text note, and say, hi, Matt. How is everything? Hi, mom, everything is going really well. Thanks. Or everything is going fine. Thanks.

    And I think when I started to not reply to those messages, she got a little more concerned. And then something very bizarre happened. On day three, they hand me my phone, and they said, we want you to call your mother. And they had prepared a very stilted script that I had to kind of regurgitate from memory.

    And they said, call your mother and tell her you're going to the mountains for a while and will not be in communication. And, of course, calling a mother and trying to say everything is fine when it's not fine, I don't think that ever works.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Right.

  • MATTHEW TREVITHICK:

    And — but, no, I mean, to answer your question, you know, in my time overseas in the Middle East and Central Asia, you know, you start to become aware of just how hard so many people work the minute an American goes missing anywhere.

    And I spent time in the cell wondering who got my file on Christmas and who got my file on New Year's, and I kind of felt a little guilty about that.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Hey, you sent out a tweet today that I wanted a little explanation of. It says basically this photo sums up your entire feelings about Iran. It was a — tell me what, does that mean?

  • MATTHEW TREVITHICK:

    So, it's a photo. I'm at the Golestan Palace in Tehran. And the backdrop of the photograph is beautiful Persian artwork, you know, traditional mosaic tiling.

    And it's absolutely captivating. And, you know, so in one sense, that, you know, deep beauty and sort of romance is — of the culture is demonstrated in the photograph. And then on one side of the photograph, my friend who took the picture just managed to capture the fact that, you know, somebody in uniform was watching me as I posed and smiled for the picture.

    And I just think that that sense of always being watched and always being under surveillance is what some Iranians live with and it's what all foreigners know is happening. And, you know, you do — you hope to deal with one more than the other.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Finally, you have worked in Afghanistan for a number of years. You have lived in Turkey. This is part of your life's work. Do you plan to go back to the region? What are your plans next?

  • MATTHEW TREVITHICK:

    I will certainly be heading back, but I think Iran and I have had enough for now.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Matthew, thanks so much for joining us.

  • MATTHEW TREVITHICK:

    Absolutely. Thank you.

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