VANCOUVER — Blindfolded and handcuffed, Dorothy Parvaz spent a night in a Syrian courtyard listening to the wails of young men being beaten until their voices were hoarse.
It was the first night after the British Columbia journalist was detained by Syrian officials while travelling to Damascus on assignment for Al Jazeera’s English-language news network.
She had no idea if anyone knew what had happened to her, she said in her first public comments since her ordeal ended Tuesday.
“I’m fairly certain (it was) for that purpose, to scare me, and I heard two separate interrogations and beatings,” she said with Qatar-based Al Jazeera posted Wednesday on the news organization’s website.
“I really felt like nobody knew where I was, who I was.”
Syrian authorities said they deported Parvaz on May 1 to Iran, where she also has citizenship.
No one heard from her until Tuesday, when Iranian authorities released her 18 days after she left Doha for Syria.
Her release was received with elation by her family, friends and her fiance, Todd Barker, who have rallied for her freedom while knowing very little about her conditions.
“I look outside and the sun is trying to shine in beautiful British Columbia and it’s just a lovely day. I’ve never been more happy — I’ve never been more happy,” Barker said Wednesday in an interview with The Canadian Press.
He spoke to Parvaz for some time after unexpectedly getting the “unreal” call at 9:30 p.m. PST, as she was clearing customs in Qatar. He described her as “very tired.”
Iran had not commented on Parvaz until Tuesday, when its foreign ministry spokesman said she had tried to enter Syria with an expired Iranian passport and without proper press clearance.
A Canadian foreign affairs spokesman said Wednesday Parvaz is “now safe.”
“Since learning of her disappearance, Canadian officials engaged authorities at high levels to press for information on her well-being and whereabouts,” Alain Cacchione said in an email.
A refreshed and calm-looking Parvaz told Al Jazeera she suspects her status as a journalist was the reason for her protracted custody. She couldn’t contact anyone from the outside world.
“Initially the impression I was given at the airport was I might be a U.S. spy for Israel, for the Zionist regime,” she said.
Parvaz also has American citizenship.
“But then it became quite clear that the fact I worked for Al Jazeera was a huge problem. They equated Al Jazeera with Human Rights Watch for causing problems for them, was how it was put to me by my interrogator.”
The Syrian government has been in the spotlight for months as it tries to quell anti-government protests.
After three days, where she said she witnessed the grim treatment of detained nationals, she was “forcefully extradited” to Iran.
“By three men dragging me onto a plane kicking and screaming,” she said, adding she was told she was being returned to Qatar.
That wasn’t the case.
“I arrived in Iran, where obviously the Iranian government had to follow through the process of dealing with someone they were told was a spy.”
However her treatment in Iran was fair and lawful, she said, noting her interrogator was always polite. She said she wasn’t subjected to abuse, her room was clean and she was given adequate medical treatment.
She added she’s looking forward to visiting her family in North Vancouver very soon.
Barker said it’s not yet clear when she’ll be flying home. Her longtime friend Sheelagh Brothers said a big group of friends are planning to “drop just about anything” to be at the airport when she does arrive.
After Parvaz was first detained, a Facebook page entitled “Free Dorothy Parvaz” was created and attracted about 16,400 followers. They include her brother, Dan Parvaz, who wrote on the page early Wednesday, “Finally, my sister is free.”
Brothers said she’s not surprised Parvaz coped well during the lengthy detention.
“She’s a strong personality, she really is, so I can’t imagine that she ever would have given up,” Brothers said in an interview.
But she added that Parvaz, who hates having her photo taken, is probably feeling a little embarrassed by the attention.
“She would have known it was going to be plastered all over the world if her friends and family had anything to do with it,” she said. “The joke has been, we’re going to need some protective custody because she’s going to kill us for what we’ve put out there in the press.”
In Syria, the government of President Bashar Assad has banned most outside journalists and placed strict controls on the few media outlets remaining in the country.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said about 20 local and international journalists have been assaulted or detained in Syria or expelled from the country since the protests against Assad broke out in March.
— With files from the Associated Press