Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights, North America, Press Freedom

RIGHTS: Iran Releases Journalist in Politicised Case

Matthew Berger

NEW YORK, May 11 2009 (IPS) - The release Monday of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi from Tehran’s Evin Prison has been greeted with relief and concern by international human rights and press freedom groups.

Roxana Saberi Credit: Eustacio Humphrey/ZUMA Press

Roxana Saberi Credit: Eustacio Humphrey/ZUMA Press

“We are delighted that justice has been served by the appeal process,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa region, in a statement. “She should, however, never have been imprisoned in the first place.”

A dual citizen of the U.S. and Iran, Saberi moved to Iran in 2003 and began working as a freelancer for a variety of news agencies, including National Public Radio, BBC, and Inter Press Service.

She was arrested in January and initially accused of trying to buy wine, later of lacking valid press credentials – they were revoked in 2006 – and finally with espionage. In April, she was convicted by Tehran’s Revolutionary Court during a one-day, closed-door trial and sentenced to eight years in prison.

Saberi went on a two-week hunger strike to protest her confinement, which drew international outcry and fasts in solidarity by several members of Reporters Without Borders, including its secretary-general, Jean-François Julliard.

On Monday, her sentence was reduced to a two-year suspended sentence and a five-year ban on working as a journalist in Iran. She is expected to return to the United States in the next few days.

“When she heard of the sentence, she found it unacceptable. She was shocked and distraught. It was totally unexpected for me, as well,” Saberi’s lawyer, Abdolsamad Khorramshahi, told IPS in April.

On Monday, the mood was a mixture of relief and anger.

“We are glad that the Iranian authorities decided to address this travesty of justice and release Roxana Saberi,” said Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director, Sarah Leah Whitson, in a statement. “But Saberi’s experience reflects the treatment of many Iranians who find themselves in custody for no good reason.”

Many see Iran’s upcoming elections as playing a key role in her detention. In the wake of her conviction on Apr. 18, Reporters Without Borders said, “Coming as it does in the run-up to elections, this sentence is a warning to all foreign journalists working in Iran.”

Robert Baer,’s intelligence columnist and the author of The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower, told IPS last month that Saberi had become caught up in the Iranian election cycle, with hardliners trying to prove they are tougher than their rivals when it comes to national security.

On Apr. 19, however, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wrote a letter to the prosecutor urging that the case be re-examined and that Saberi have a full defence, which, according to The New York Times, is viewed by critics as an election-year ploy to cast himself as a defender of human rights.

The arrest had been a strain on U.S.-Iranian relations as President Barack Obama tries to reach out to Tehran. On Apr. 19, he denied any involvement by Saberi in espionage, saying he was “gravely concerned” about her.

The following day, Amnesty International said in a statement, “Saberi is a pawn to the ongoing political developments between Iran and the USA and should be considered a prisoner of conscience.”

On Monday, Amnesty called for the release of all other prisoners of conscience in Iran. The group also regretted the conditions attached to her release.

Iran has a history of limiting press freedom within its borders. Most recently, Iranian-Canadian blogger Hussein Derakhshan was imprisoned in November 2008, accused of insulting religious leaders. Journalist Mohammad Sadegh Kabodvand has been held since July 2007 for founding a human rights organisation in Kurdistan. And Mohammad Hassin Falahieh Zadeh, who worked for the state-owned television station Al-Alam and freelanced for Arab news media, was sentenced to three years in April 2007, according to Reporters Without Borders.

In a statement following Saberi’s release, Reporters Without Borders said, “The short space of time between the original trial and the appeal, the length of the appeal hearing, and the fact that her lawyers were allowed to speak in her defence are all encouraging signs. But we must not jump to conclusions as the Iranian judicial system often produces surprises.”

“Iran has a long way to go in guaranteeing freedom of the press, but this is one small indication that there is hope for the future,” Society of Professional Journalists’ President Dave Aeikens said in a statement.

The Committee to Protect Journalists Executive Director Joel Simon likewise said, “We are pleased that Roxana Saberi has been released from prison and hope that other imprisoned journalists in Iran are also given the opportunity defend themselves and receive due process under the law.”

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