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Travel adventurer Santiago Sanchez Cogedor reflects on his 15-month imprisonment in Iran

Unknown to me, I was at the gravesite of Mahsa Amini and photographing a tomb in Iran can be misconstrued as espionage – a charge that potentially carries the death penalty. I had no intention at the time of protesting in Iran.

  • 5 months ago
  • January 18, 2024
Santiago Sanchez Cogedor began his walking expedition from Spain to Qatar | Photo courtesy of Santiago Sanchez Cogedor Santiago Sanchez Cogedor began his walking expedition from Spain to Qatar | Photo courtesy of Santiago Sanchez Cogedor
journalist’s notes
interview subject
Santiago Sanchez Cogedor, a 42-year-old Madrid native and former Spanish army paratrooper turned boxing instructor, is known for his adventurous spirit. In 2019, he cycled from Madrid to Saudi Arabia, engaging in charitable activities en route. In 2022, he embarked on a walking expedition to Doha for the World Cup. Follow his ongoing and upcoming journeys, including an exciting new project to be announced soon on Instagram @santiago_sanchez_cogedor.
background information
Santiago Sánchez Cogedor was arrested in Iranian Kurdistan on October 2, 2022, after visiting the tomb of Mahsa Amini, whose death while in moral police custody sparked significant protests worldwide. He was detained in Tehran’s Evin prison, known for its harsh conditions and criticism by human rights groups. An Iranian lawyer, financed by Sánchez’s friends represented him. Spain’s Foreign Minister, José Manuel Albares, intervened, advocating for Sánchez’s release amidst allegations of unjust detention, paralleling the plight of several Europeans held in Iran. Sánchez’s case unfolded against the backdrop of Spain’s active role in advocating for a ceasefire in Gaza.

SAQQEZ, Iran — When I embarked on a walking trip from Madrid, Spain to Doha, Qatar, I envisioned taking an adventurous journey. However, I faced a dramatic turn of events when Iranian authorities arrested me. My traveling journey instead became a fifteen-month imprisonment shadowed by worries of being sentenced to death.

After an innocent act of photographing a cemetery near the grave of Mahsa Amini [the 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman who died in police custody in Iran, sparking international outrage] Iranian authorities arrested me on espionage charges.

This incident abruptly shifted my life from the freedom of travel to the confines of a prison cell; from writing a travelogue to reshaping my identity in unimaginable ways.

Read more stories out of or related to Iran from Orato World Media.

Backpacking through Brazil and Argentina ignited an insatiable desire for travel 

My travel journey began in 2018 during a trip to South America. From Brazil to Argentina, carrying only a backpack, every day felt an adventure. At night, families took me in or volunteer fire departments offered me shelter. I witnessed humanity’s finest qualities.

When I returned home, my whole outlook on life shifted. The days became too constricting and in 2002, this feeling led to a daring decision. I wanted to walk from Madrid, Spain to Qatar to support Spain in the Soccer World Cup.

Sharing my plans with others solidified my intent. Not everyone could grasp my motives and I encountered skepticism, but it never swayed me. I saw a clear path forward: to live a life unbounded by the ordinary. A dream, however, can upend your life.

Leading up to my departure, I had no time to spare. Working twelve hours a day at a logistics company, I saved money, squeezed in interviews, and met with potential sponsors. Caught up in a whirlwind, I felt an eager anxiety growing by the day to get started on my adventure.

In January 2022, I stood still at the Matapiñonera Stadium in San Sebastián de los Reyes, Madrid. A large group of friends, family, and city officials surrounded me – gathered to watch a man begin his walk. My heart raced and I felt the thrill of setting my adventure into motion.

Every day of my trip delivered new experiences and unique emotions. Entering France first, I felt so fortunate to have a Spanish passport and for the ease of crossing the border. Prior to entering a new country, I always researched how to say hello, thank you, and please. Words of respect matter and crucial language is often expressed, not spoken, like a sparkle in the eye.

From South America to the Middle East, I never imagined being imrpisoned in Iran

Crossing into Turkey, I encountered a police officer. He stared at me as he repeatedly asked, “Are you walking from Spain?” Amazed by my story, the man treated me to dinner and paid for a hotel room. Despite the language barrier, we experienced such a strong connection he invited me to a wedding the following month.

Dressed in a newly purchased pair of jeans and a Real Madrid t-shirt, his family welcomed me as one of their own. They opened their home and hearts to me, and I felt moved to be a part of their celebration. A few nights later, alone in my tent under the vast, dark sky, I prepared to sleep.

In such isolation, every sound seems magnified, every rustle a potential danger. Then, suddenly, a silhouette loomed outside. I opened my tent and encountered a man with a rifle. Fear gripped me, but then he promptly offered a sandwich and water. I quickly learned; things aren’t always as they seem.

Santiago Sanchez Cogedor at the wedding in Turkey | Photo courtesy of Santiago Sanchez Cogedor

By October 2, I finally reached Iran, a country I long admired. At the border, a young local offered me a ride to Tehran. The route went awry and uncertain where I was, I stayed in the area, curious where my journey would lead. Eventually, I became tired and fell asleep outside.

When I awoke in a cemetery, I felt confused and stepped forward. A young boy suggested I take a photo with my phone. That innocent act was my undoing. Security forces arrived abruptly and arrested me. Unknown to me, I was at the gravesite of Mahsa Amini and photographing a tomb in Iran can be misconstrued as espionage – a charge that potentially carries the death penalty. I had no intention at the time of protesting in Iran.

The days stretched to months and I feared being executed in Iran

They authorities quickly confined me to a tiny, two-square-meter cell, in stark contrast to the wide freedom of my recent travels. The cell remained lit at all hours, and I had no bathroom. My world shrunk from the vastness of the globe to my little room in an Iranian prison.

Initially, the threat of execution haunted me. Yet, as days turned into months, I adapted. I told myself to accept my circumstances and find peace in the storm. This mindset became crucial for my survival, especially after a cellmate got hanged unexpectedly. 

Eventually, they moved me to a shared cell, where I witnessed the harsh realities of Iranian justice. Later, they transferred me to a prison with more amenities – a workshop, library, and courtyard. I reimagined my imprisonment as a unique learning opportunity.

I taught Spanish and boxing, learned Persian and English, and worked in the woodshop. Rather than succumbing to despair, I embraced my situation, finding strength in new friendships and knowledge. Those 15 months became a transformative inner journey.

The uncertainty of the duration of my imprisonment seemed to stretch time. Everything felt eternal and almost infinite. Along the way, false hopes and lies raised my spirits and then dashed them. When the authorities finally told me I would be released, I did not believe them.

My return and reflections post-imprisonment

Inside the prison, I felt heartbroken, but I shared a smile with others anyway. When my release finally became real, that hopelessness dissipated. When Iranian authorities transferred me to the airport and I boarded an airplane to Madrid, an intense joy filled me.

Landing at the Barajas Airport felt surreal – like a mixture of joy and numbness. These sensations created a buffer around me as I encountered an emotional onslaught. Faces of friends, family, Spanish authorities, and strangers who knew my story appeared everywhere. They looked so happy to see me.

Unaware of what was about to happen, my brother hoisted me up onto his shoulders and I joined the celebration, shouting with joy. Since returning home, however, I feel as though dark clouds hover over me. I continue to process my ordeal of being imprisoned in Iran.

Santiago Sanchez Cogedor returns to Spain after 15 months of imprisonment | Photo courtesy of Santiago Sanchez Cogedor

Gradually, I feel myself returning to reality, though shedding the weight of my experience remains difficult. I do my best to handle it well, leaning on the love that surrounds me. Facing a potential death sentence for 15 months is an extreme experience.

My body is in Spain, but my mind often lingers in that Iranian prison. Sometimes, I wake up early, feeling restless, and thinking about my former cellmates. I remember their routines and wonder about their well-being.

I never thought Iran, a country I loved, could do this to me. Yet, I harbor no hatred. That would feel cowardly. I hope to return to Iran one day, walking there calmly without fear or resentment. Like anyone, I live with my demons. I face my future and I already have a new adventure in mind.

Translation Disclaimer

Translations provided by Orato World Media are intended to result in the end translated document being understandable in the end language. Although every effort is made to ensure our translations are accurate we cannot guarantee the translation will be without errors.

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