Iran Releases Journalist Convicted of Spying for U.S.
Monday 11 May 2009
An Iranian-American journalist who was sentenced to eight years in jail on charges of spying for Washington was released Monday after an appeals court reduced the sentence, her lawyer said. The journalist, Roxana Saberi, will be able to leave the country, he said.
The lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht, who defended Ms. Saberi in a hearing on Sunday, said the court rejected the original jail term and issued a two-year suspended prison term in its place.
“The verdict was given to me in person today,” Mr. Nikbakht said. “The appeals court has accepted our defense.”
Ms. Saberi had been held in Evin prison in Tehran since January. Her father, Reza Saberi, told journalists that Ms. Saberi was “exhausted but in good condition.” He added: “Her release was a big surprise.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a news briefing at the State Department that Ms. Saberi had been reunited with her family and that she would leave Tehran for the United States in the coming days.
“Obviously, we continue to take issue with the charges against her, and the verdict rendered,” Ms. Clinton said. “But we are very heartened that she has been released, and wish her and her family all the very best.”
The case threatened to complicate political maneuvering between Iranian and American leaders over Iran’s nuclear program, a source of longstanding tension between the two nations. President Obama recently made overtures to Tehran about starting a dialogue over the nuclear program, and Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, responded positively.
The State Department spokesman, Ian Kelly, said the release of Ms. Saberi would help reduce the chill in Iranian-American relations. “We see it as a humanitarian gesture, and we welcome it as such,” he said.
A senior administration official said Ms. Saberi’s case illustrated a deepening divide with the Iranian leadership about how to respond to President Obama’s offer of direct negotiations.
“The fact that she was taken and not released right away was clearly something done by the hard liners,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “But those who were open to the United States said ‘wait a minute.”
“Those who are trying to engage the U.S. won out,” the official said, noting that the release removes a substantial short-term impediment to direct talks between Iran and the United States.
“There wasn’t going to be any major new administration initiative toward Iran without this case resolved,” he said. “If we were going to go in any way toward a direct dialogue, it had to be resolved.”
The appeals court ruling appeared to reflect the moderating tone of relations between the two nations. In the closed hearing on Sunday, Mr. Nikbakht argued that Ms. Saberi should be released because both Iran’s foreign ministry and its judiciary had recently affirmed that “there was no hostility between Iran and the United States,” he said. The judges accepted the argument.
Saeed Leylaz, a political analyst in Tehran, said that he believed Ms. Saberi’s release confirmed speculation that her arrest was political. “Maybe Iran wants to send a message to Washington with her release that we are powerful,” he said. “Secondly, that we are flexible, and thirdly, that if we receive the right incentives, we will hold talks as well.”
Ms. Saberi, 32, has lived in Iran since 2003 and worked as a freelance journalist for National Public Radio and the BBC. She was arrested in late January for buying a bottle of wine, which is illegal in Iran. But the charges against her escalated to working without a press card and then spying for Washington. Her press card had been revoked in 2006.
Ms. Saberi was found guilty in April in a trial her father said lasted less than an hour. Soon after her sentencing, Mr. Ahmadinejad urged the chief prosecutor to re-examine the case in a move analysts saw as a way to portray himself as a defender of human rights ahead of the presidential election on June 12.
Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based group, said that he was “thrilled” that Ms. Saberi has been released from prison and that he looked forward to welcoming her home.
“But this is also a moment to reflect on the difficult conditions that Iranian journalists endure every day,” Mr. Simon said. “Several Iranian journalists remain jailed today. We urge they be given the same opportunity for judicial review that was afforded to Roxana Saberi.”