Intl. Support Mounts for Jailed Journalist

by , April 21, 2009

Since Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi was sentenced to eight years in prison last week on the charge of spying for foreign governments, human rights and press freedom groups have become increasingly critical of the political nature of her case and the harsh and unprecedented penalty.

A dual citizen of the U.S. and Iran, Saberi, 31, grew up in Fargo, North Dakota. Five years ago, she moved to Iran and began working as a freelancer for a variety of news agencies, including National Public Radio, BBC, and Inter Press Service.

The former beauty queen – Saberi was the 1997 "Miss North Dakota" – was arrested in January and initially accused of trying to buy wine, later of lacking valid press credentials, and finally with espionage.

"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 by telephone from Tehran. "I had provided the court with reasoning which would refute the charges, and I continue to hold to my belief. I will provide my appeal to the court in 20 days."

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

"It was also unfortunate her press credentials were not current, making her an easy target," said Baer. "When I was in Iran, I did only what Irshad [Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which oversees foreign journalists] would let me do, even refusing to meet someone from the British embassy or going to private parties."

"At least she wasn’t taken prisoner by the CIA – she would have been waterboarded by now," Baer added ironically.

Dr. Sadegh Zibakalam, an analyst and professor of political science at Tehran University, told IPS in a telephone interview that Saberi is only guilty of caring deeply for Iran and its people.

She had interviewed the academic for her news reports several times over the last three years. Saberi also occasionally translated Dr. Zibakalam’s opinion pieces to English for foreign news agencies and papers.

"Once she told me that she was concerned that her press credentials were expired and she would eventually have to go back to the United States. She was very upset. I told her, I will try to help you to renew your press ID," he said.

Zibakalam recently wrote an op-ed for a reformist newspaper objecting to Saberi’s situation. The newspaper initially agreed to publish the piece, but backed out at the last minute – a reflection, he believes, of the widespread fear that publicizing the case could provoke the government to shut the paper down.

Zibakalam instead wrote an open letter to the head of Iran’s judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi – which Iranian newspapers also refused to publish.

"I wrote to Ayatollah Shahroudi asking how a journalist who cannot even renew her press credentials could have access to classified, secret state documents, and be able to send those documents to Iran’s enemies like the U.S. and Israel’s intelligence services? How is it possible?" he said.

On Saturday, a day after the sentencing, in a letter to Tehran’s prosecutor, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that Saberi should be ensured a full defense during her appeal.

"Ahmadinejad’s letter to the judiciary, as well the head of the judiciary’s call for a re-investigation of the case, seems to indicate they both were not aware of the sentence," Hadi Ghaemi, spokesperson for the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, told IPS.

"If the judge and prosecutors proceeded without the top leadership’s knowledge, it means they are out of control. It is also a possibility that the leadership was aware and now, by advocating for Saberi, it can appear to be caring about human rights and justice, which is duplicitous," added Ghaemi.

"The charges against her have no credibility, and if her case is not resolved soon, it is a bad omen for how much control Iranian leadership has over its intelligence and security forces," he added.

In his letter, Ahmadinejad also mentioned the Iranian-Canadian blogger Hussein Derakhshan, who has been in prison since November 2008, accused of insulting religious leaders. Ahmadinejad requested Tehran’s prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi, also ensure that he be able to fully defend himself, according to the state news agency, IRNA.

On Sunday, President Barack Obama said that he was "gravely concerned" about Saberi, and denied that she was involved in espionage. "She is an Iranian-American who was interested in the country which her family came from. And it is appropriate for her to be treated as such and to be released," Obama said.

In a statement Monday, Amnesty International said that "U.S.-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi is a pawn to the ongoing political developments between Iran and the USA and should be considered a prisoner of conscience."

"The fact that Roxana Saberi faced a shifting tide of accusations from the time of her arrest until her trial is an indication that the Iranian authorities were looking for any excuse to detain her," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa Program."There is no reason for holding Roxana Saberi, unless the Iranian authorities can provide convincing evidence that she committed a recognizable criminal offense."

"Saberi’s 11 weeks of detention and one-day trial are tainted by a complete lack of transparency," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "This was a travesty of justice even by Iran’s poor standards."

Although Iran has a history of accusing dual nationality citizens in the past, such as Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian-American scholar, and Ramin Jahanbeglou, a Canadian-Iranian academic, charged with trying to launch a "velvet revolution" in Iran, this is the first time that the Iranian authorities have found an American-Iranian guilty of espionage.

Both scholars were released after a few months and eventually left the country.

Some sources close to the case fear that the Iranian authorities might force Roxana Saberi to appear on national television and confess to the charges that she has steadfastly denied, a tactic often used by Iran’s intelligence services as a part of a deal that can include an early release.

(Inter Press Service)

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