Freelance reporter freed by Iran

A freelance journalist has walked free from one of Iran’s most notorious prisons in spite of last month being jailed for eight years on charges of ‘spying.’

Roxana Saberi, a US-Iranian citizen who freelanced for the BBC, left Tehran’s Evin prison after a closed appeals court cut her sentence to a two-year suspended term.

Lawyers for the 32-year-old told press freedom groups she was initially convicted in April of “collaborating with a state at war with the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Reporters with dual Iranian-American citizenship have long been seen as suspicious by authorities in Tehran, though Ms Saberi was the first to be tried and jailed.

However in a five-hour hearing on Monday, appeal judges agreed to change her charges on the grounds that the United States and Iran “were not at war.”

Although Iran still regards Ms Saberi as guilty - for “collecting and transmitting classified information” – media freedom lobbyists said the U-turn could be seminal.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said: “The appeal court’s decision to free her can be used as a legal precedent for other journalists currently detained in Iran.”

Yet unlike the 14 journalists and bloggers still held in Iran, Ms Saberi’s detention prompted worldwide appeals, including one from US President Barack Obama.

The freelance, whose clients includes Fox News and National Public Radio, was originally apprehended by police on the grounds her press credentials had expired.

She was held, without charge, and even faced a separate allegation of buying a bottle of wine – an illegal product, according to her father, who led her release efforts.

Iran’s authorities finally convicted her of espionage, a crime used to silence probing reporters, sparking outrage from the West which, in turn, sparked a rare intervention.

Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was cited by news wires as expressing his concern that the verdict had been arrived at too quickly and without due process.

On cue, the appeals court review followed, and although it effectively threw out the eight-year term, it has also banned Ms Saberi from reporting in Iran until 2014.

Since her release, the former beauty queen from North Dakota has not reported any ill-effects from a hunger strike she initiated to protest against her sentence.

During her detention, a petition demanding her freedom attracted more than 10,000 signatures and united the efforts of 35 international press freedom groups.


Editorial image courtesy of James Buck


13th May 2009

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