Freelance Journalist Initially Given Eight Years for Espionage
Iranian-American freelance journalist Roxana Saberi was released from prison on May 11, 2009 after an Iranian appeallate court issued a two-year suspended sentence in her espionage trial. Saberi was originally sentenced by the Revolutionary Court of Iran on April 15 to an eight-year prison term for spying, but Iranian officials had intimated her sentence might be commuted in light of the possibility of renewed diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran.
The Associated Press (AP) reported May 12 that Saberi told reporters outside her home in Tehran “I’m of course very happy to be free and to be with my parents again, and I want to thank all the people all over the world – which I’m just finding out about really – who whether they knew me or not helped me and my family during this period.”
The AP reported that the family was making plans to return to the United States. The Washington Post reported May 11 that one of Saberi’s lawyers, Abdolsamad Khorramshai, said that under the terms of her sentence, Saberi is free to leave the country, but she is banned from working as a journalist in Iran for five years.
Saberi grew up in Fargo, N.D., where her parents Reza and Akiko still reside. She attended Concordia College in nearby Moorhead, Minn., the AP reported May 11. She was named Miss North Dakota in 1997. She moved to Iran six years ago, the AP reported.
Saberi was arrested and detained Jan. 31, 2009 in Iran. The AP reported March 1 that she told her father in a phone call from prison on February 10 that she had been arrested for purchasing a bottle of wine, an offense under Islamic law. However, Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman Hasan Qashqavi later said Saberi was arrested for illegally working after her press card had expired, according to an April 14 New York Times story. Saberi was detained in northern Tehran’s Evin prison, which is used for prisoners arrested on national security charges.
Saberi has reported for NPR, the BBC, and Fox News. A March 2 press release from the nonprofit advocacy organization Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said Saberi’s press credentials were revoked in 2006 by Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which handles accreditation for reporters employed by foreign news organizations.
Saberi was still filing short news stories from Iran after her press credentials were revoked, NPR.org reported. According to a March 13 press release from Human Rights Watch, Saberi was the Tehran bureau chief for Feature Story News, an independent broadcast news agency supplying ready-to-air news content to networks and Web sites, when she was detained. Reza Saberi told the AP April 15 that his daughter was also conducting research for a book on Iranian society and pursuing a master’s degree.
The AP reported May 12 that one of Saberi’s lawyers, Saleh Nikbakht, said her initial conviction for espionage stemmed from her copying and keeping a “confidential document” about the U.S. war in Iraq that she obtained while working as a freelance translator for the Expediency Council, an Iranian governmental body that mediates between the legislature, president, and ruling clerics over constitutional disputes. Nikbakht said Saberi occasionally worked as a translator for the council’s Web site in 2006.
Nikbakht said Saberi admitted in her May 10 court appearance that she possessed the document, said she did not share it with American officials, and apologized. The court reduced the charge against her from espionage to possessing confidential documents, the AP reported.
Reuters reported March 6 that an official from Tehran’s public prosecutor’s office said that Saberi would be released “in a few days.” But then on April 5, a revolutionary tribunal in Iran indicted Saberi on charges of espionage, The Times reported April 14. Iran’s revolutionary courts hear cases involving terrorism or national security issues.
On April 13, the Revolutionary Court held a brief, closed-door trial for Saberi. Saberi said she herself did not know the trial was occurring until 15 minutes after it had begun, The Times reported April 19. In an April 18 story on NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” Reza Saberi said that Roxana had been coerced and “deceived” into confessing to the charges before her trial.
Saberi was sentenced to eight years imprisonment on April 15. Espionage charges typically carry a sentence of up to ten years in prison, according to the April 15 AP report, however, the death penalty has also been used against individuals convicted of espionage in Iran.
In protest of the conviction, Saberi began a hunger strike on April 23, ABC News reported, and continued her fast, consuming only liquids, until May 6, when she concluded it for “health reasons,” the AP reported. Upon her release, Reza Saberi said “She has lost a lot of weight,” adding that now “she is eating well [and] recovering,” the AP reported.
Following the initial sentencing, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asked officials to examine the case, perhaps in an attempt to facilitate a renewal of diplomatic relations with the U.S., The New York Times reported April 19, 2009.
The Times reported that in an unusual move, Ahmadinejad wrote a letter to Tehran’s prosecutor general, Saaed Mortazavi on April 19, stating “At the president’s insistence, you must do what is needed to secure justice and fairness in examining these charges. Take care that the defendants have all the legal freedoms and rights to defend themselves against the charges and none of their rights are violated.”
Ahmadinejad’s letter had no binding legal force because Chapter XI of Iran’s Constitution states the judiciary is independent from the other branches of government, including the executive.
In an April 22 interview with ABC News Chief Washington Correspondent and anchor George Stephanopoulos, Ahmadinejad said he would not intervene in the case. “I am not a judge, and I do not pass judgment over judicial cases,” he said. “In Iran, the judiciary is independent.”
According to The New York Times and the AP, officials from the Iranian judiciary also made statements in mid-April encouraging fairness in the appeals process and hoping that the sentence would be “reconsidered.” The rare comments were interpreted as an indicator that Saberi’s sentence might be commuted, the AP reported.
According to Nikbakht, Saberi was originally convicted for violating Article 508 of the Iranian criminal code, which prohibits “collaborating with a state at war with the Islamic Republic of Iran,” according to a May 11 press release issued by Paris-based free press advocacy organization Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF or Reporters without Borders). The appeals court modified the charges against Saberi because the U.S. and Iran are not at war, RSF reported May 10. Instead, the appeals court convicted Saberi of collecting and transmitting classified information under Article 505 of Iran’s criminal code.
The United States asserted that Saberi was innocent of spying charges and tried to advocate on Saberi’s behalf indirectly with Iran through the Swiss government. The Times’ April 14 story said U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood called the espionage charge “baseless.” In March, the United States also gave a letter to an Iranian delegation attending a conference at The Hague, asking that Saberi and two other Americans detained or missing in Iran be freed. According to The New York Times on May 12, a senior State Department official said the United States views the release of Saberi as a “partial response” to that letter, but it should not be viewed as a “grand gesture of detente,” he said.
Before Saberi’s release, U.S. officials hinted that her detention had strained the Obama administration’s efforts to initiate a dialogue with Iran. “[W]e think responding in a positive way to the Saberi case would be helpful, in terms of winning goodwill on the part of the United States and the American people,” Wood said, according to an April 16 Washington Post story.
However, a media adviser to Ahmadinejad said in an interview that “The U.S. says it’s extending a hand of friendship while at the same time it sends spies such as Ms. Saberi to Iran. The U.S. government must change its contradictory behavior and take a truthful and clear and defined position,” according to an April 19 Washington Post story.
News organizations and press advocacy groups lent Saberi their support during her imprisonment and after her release. In an April 16 editorial, The New York Times said Saberi had become a “political pawn” in international relations between the United States and Iran, which were broken off after the 1979 hostage crisis. “Iran’s government needs to release Ms. Saberi and end this dangerous farce,” the editorial asserted. “Iran is ensuring that its shockingly poor human rights record will remain a contentious issue between the two countries and make finding rapprochement even harder.”
An RSF statement issued May 11 following Saberi’s release stated, “The appeal court’s decision to free her can be used as a legal precedent for other journalists currently detained in Iran. The fact nonetheless remains that, despite her innocence, she is still regarded as guilty by the Iranian authorities.”
According to The Times on May 12, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters in Washington D.C. “We continue to take issue with the charges against her and the verdicts rendered, but we are very heartened that she has been released.”
– Amba DattaSilha Research Assistant