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Esfandiari losing weight in Iranian prison

Family and friends of Iranian-American academic released from Iran say they worry about her health and mental well-being after spending months behind bars and losing considerable weight.

The U.S. institute that employs Haleh Esfandiari also said it hoped she would be allowed to return to the United States to reunite with her family there.

Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, had been jailed in Evin prison since early May after months of interrogation. Her 93-year-old mother used the deed to her Tehran apartment to post bail late Tuesday, relatives said.

Esfandiari, 67, spent Tuesday night and Wednesday morning at her mother's Tehran apartment, relatives said.

She told Iranian TV, moments after her release, that she had been treated well in prison. But Wilson institute officials and her daughter, Haleh Bakhash, speaking in phone interviews in the United States, said Esfandiari's health has been a concern.

"Her physical and mental well-being is now the urgent priority," said Lee Hamilton, the head of the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Esfandiari, a slight woman who weighed only 105 pounds to begin with, apparently lost considerable weight in prison, Hamilton said, and was also under considerable mental stress while jailed.

Her family was not allowed to deliver medicine, and during brief calls to her mother in Tehran, Esfandiari said she suffered from arthritis as well as pain in her eyes, the daughter said.

It was unclear if Esfandiari would be allowed to leave Iran. The Iranian government had no immediate comment, but Hamilton said the institute hoped she would be allowed to leave.

Esfandiari is still believed to face the charges she was jailed on, of endangering Iran's national security - charges her family vehemently denies.

"I'm very happy. ... I thank all those who made efforts to make it possible for me to go home," Esfandiari told Iranian television on Tuesday. The footage showed her walking out of the prison and meeting family members in a car on a nearby street.

Esfandiari, 67, was detained Dec. 30 after three masked men holding knives threatened to kill her on her way to Tehran's airport to fly back to the U.S., the Wilson Center has said. The men took her U.S. and Iranian passports, making her unable to leave the country, the center said.

For several weeks, she was interrogated by authorities for up to eight hours a day about the activities of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, the Washington-based foundation said.

Iran charged Esfandiari in May. Since then, her only contact with her family, before Tuesday, had been brief telephone calls to her mother in which she said she was under stress, Hamilton said.

The Iranian Intelligence Ministry had accused Esfandiari and her organization of trying to set up networks of Iranians with the ultimate goal of creating a "soft revolution" in Iran. Her husband, Shaul Bakhash, and the Wilson Center denied the allegations.

Esfandiari told Iranian TV after her release that her jailers were polite and she had recently been allowed to read newspapers and watch television.

"Their treatment was remarkably good. I had a big room. It was a bright room with window. They had made it possible for me to go out for a walk," she said.

Iran has charged three other Iranian-Americans for security-related offenses: Parnaz Azima, a journalist for U.S.-funded Radio Farda; Kian Tajbakhsh, an urban planning consultant with the Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute; and Ali Shakeri, a founding board member of the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at the University of California, Irvine.

Shakeri and Tajbakhsh are in prison; Azima is free but barred from leaving Iran.

Hamilton said he was unsure what prompted Esfandiari's release but said he had recently received a written response from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's office after sending him a letter appealing for her freedom.

Khamenei said he was pleased that Hamilton had expressed a desire for peace and justice and added he had given instructions to "deal with this issue" and that "necessary measures" would be taken, according to Hamilton.

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