By Thomas Erdbrink and Kay Armin Serjoie
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
An Iranian appeals court freed American journalist Roxana Saberi on Monday, three weeks after the 32-year-old former beauty queen was convicted of spying for the United States in a closed, one-day trial.
After three months in Tehran's Evin prison, including a reported 15-day hunger strike, Saberi was reunited with her parents, who had flown from North Dakota to seek her release and said they planned to take her home within days. "We are very happy and emotional," said her father, Reza Saberi.
The appeals court lowered the charges against Roxana Saberi from espionage to "possessing classified information" and reduced her eight-year prison sentence to a two-year suspended term, according to her attorney Abdolsamad Khorramshai. She is barred from working as a reporter in Iran for five years, he said.
The sudden turnaround clears an obstacle to a potential warming between Iran's government and the Obama administration, which has voiced willingness to engage the Islamic republic in dialogue over nuclear and other issues after years of tense relations.
The United States had dismissed the espionage allegations against Saberi as groundless, and both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had called for her release. Commentators immediately began speculating on what Iranian authorities hoped to gain in return by releasing Saberi.
"Let people draw their own conclusions," Ali Akbar Javanfekr, press adviser to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said when asked whether Saberi's release was intended as a sign of goodwill toward the United States.
"Maybe we want people to read into this," he added, declining to elaborate.
Iranian leaders have repeatedly asked for the release of three Iranian diplomats held without trial by U.S. forces in Iraq since 2007. The Iranians, accused of spying, were arrested during a raid at what Iran says was its consulate in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil. U.S. forces said the office was used by members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Iran has leveled and dropped high-profile espionage allegations in an apparent bid for international goodwill in the past. In March 2007, Revolutionary Guards detained 15 British sailors and marines after they allegedly ventured into Iranian waters. They were held for two weeks, threatened with lengthy prison terms, then suddenly released in a ceremony led by Ahmadinejad, who said they had been guests and gave them suits and carpets as gifts.
Saberi, whose father emigrated from Iran decades ago, was born in the United States but also holds an Iranian passport. The former Miss North Dakota worked in Iran as a freelancer for the BBC, National Public Radio and other news organizations before Iranian authorities revoked her press card in 2006 without explanation.
She was detained in late January, initially on a charge of buying alcohol, which is prohibited in Iran. In April, a revolutionary court found her guilty of espionage and sentenced her to eight years, the harshest term ever meted out by an Iranian court to a dual national on security charges. After U.S. officials protested and Saberi's attorney filed an appeal, Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders called for a rehearing, and the appeals court met Sunday.
As word of Saberi's impending release spread through Tehran on Monday, television crews gathered outside Evin prison, hoping to film her. But she left through a side door, avoiding the media and holing up in an undisclosed location in the Iranian capital.
One of Saberi's attorneys, Saleh Nikbakht, credited an acclaimed Iranian Kurdish filmmaker, Bahman Ghobadi, with helping to win her freedom. "His efforts in contacting high officials, advocating her release, have been instrumental," Nikbakht said.
Ghobadi denied for months that he and Saberi were in a romantic relationship, but two weeks ago he wrote a letter to the authorities calling for the release of his "love with Japanese eyes." Saberi's mother is Japanese.
Ghobadi told reporters Monday that he hoped Saberi would accompany him later this week to the Cannes Film Festival for a screening of his movie "No One Has Heard of the Persian Cat," co-written by Saberi.
Serjoie reported from Tehran.