Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Roxana Saberi's release may shift hurdle to rapprochement with White House

Robert Tait


May 11

An American-born journalist convicted of spying on Iran walked free from jail today after a court commuted her eight-year sentence in a move that may remove a barrier to rapprochement between Tehran and Washington.

Roxana Saberi, 32, was reunited with her parents after more than three months in prison. She had been first accused of working without press credentials before being found guilty of espionage.

Her release came a day after an appeal hearing against last month's conviction, which had been condemned by President Barack Obama and prompted an international clamour for her release.

The appeal judges replaced her original sentence with a two-year suspended term. Her lawyer, Abdolsamad Khorramshahi, said that Saberi, who has worked for the BBC and National Public Radio in the US, was also banned from reporting inside Iran for five years.

Iranian officials said she was free to leave the country.

The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, welcomed the release. "Obviously, we continue to take issue with the charges against her and the verdicts rendered, but we are very heartened that she has been released, and wish her and her family all of the very best," she said.

Saberi's father, Reza Saberi, 68, an Iranian-born academic who emigrated to the US in the 1970s, said he and his Japanese-born wife, Akiko, intended to take their daughter back to the family home in Fargo, North Dakota.

"We will go back as soon as possible. We have to make some arrangements," he said outside Evin prison in Tehran. "She is in very good condition. We are very happy that they gave us such a break."

Saberi's parents had stayed in her flat in the Iranian capital after travelling from the US in an effort to win her release. Her father had vowed to remain in Iran for as long as it took to free his daughter. He appeared overcome with emotion as the journalist, who has lived in Iran for six years, emerged from prison, the Associated Press news agency reported.

Saberi was convicted after prosecutors alleged that she had procured classified information and passed it to the US. She was arrested in January and had originally told her parents in a telephone call that she had been detained after buying a bottle of wine, a crime under the Islamic Republic's laws.

Her father subsequently said that was a false statement given under duress. She was said to have been writing a book about the country at the time of her detention.

After her conviction at a closed hearing, her lawyer argued that he had not been able to mount a full defence. Saberi, who holds US and Iranian citizenship, denied all charges against her and, according to her father, went on hunger strike to protest her innocence. She reportedly resumed eating only last week after being admitted to hospital suffering from the ill effects of her fast. Her incarceration threatened to derail the Obama administration's hopes of forging a new relationship with Iran after 30 years of mutual hostility.

Obama dismissed the accusations against Saberi as baseless and called for her release.

In the face of the outcry, Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wrote to the country's judiciary chiefs, saying that she should be given full rights of defence and appeal.

Some Iranian websites yesterday credited Ahmadinejad's intervention with securing Saberi's release, but said Iran had lost out because it had failed in return to win the release of diplomats that the government says are being held by American forces in Iraq.

"How come, after a few angry remarks from Obama and [US secretary of state] Hillary Clinton – expressed after their diplomatic smiles – Roxana Saberi turned from being a spy to a free citizen, while Iranian diplomats are still held in Iraq?" wrote the conservative website Tabnak.

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