Roxana Saberi was released today from Evin prison in Tehran, where she has been held since January on what the U.S. State Department has called “baseless” charges of spying for the United States government. Sentenced in April to eight years in prison by Iran’s Revolutionary Court, Ms. Saberi saw her sentence reduced to a “two-year suspended sentence” by the court of appeals. The verdict is a victory for justice, but harm has been done to Ms. Saberi all the same, which needs to be assessed.
Look at the sequence of events. First Saberi, a former Miss North Dakota and finalist for the 1998 Miss America pageant, spent the last six years studying for a master’s degree in Iran and working as a freelance journalist for the BBC, National Public Radio and Fox News. In 2006, however, her press card was revoked. That was the first limitation imposed upon her by the government, perhaps something of a warning that she didn’t heed, since she continued reporting without a license.
Then in January 2008, Saberi was arrested for buying a bottle of wine. Once in confinement, she was charged as well with working as a journalist without a license. She spent her 32nd birthday in the prison. Then came the spying charge, a trial—described by her father in the New York Times as less than an hour long—followed by the eight-year sentence. Luckily for Saberi, that sentence was protested by a number of international groups. President Obama himself called the allegation of espionage a “fabrication” and urged her release.
Meanwhile, Ms. Saberi’s father (an Iranian-American) and her mother (a Japanese-American) traveled to Iran to secure lawyers for their daughter’s appeal and to press for her release. In May the Saberi case came under review by the appeals court in Iran. The judgment was expedited, likely because of the adverse publicity the case had drawn and because of the positive prospects for better relations between Presidents Obama and Ahmadinejad.
Even though Ms. Saberi may leave the prison today free and physically unharmed, she has had her press credential revoked and has been confined for five months—a period full of mental anguish and expense for her and her family, and during which she conducted a brief hunger strike. No evidence substantiating the espionage charge has been made public. Instead Ms. Saberi has been used as a political pawn; she has been assigned a role in the political theatre being played out between Iran and a new U.S. government.
Her freedom to report on Iranian society as a female with dual Iranian-American citizenship invited Iranian censure. Her beauty and youth drew hardliners’ attention, but it also drew sympathy to her side. Her case has served as a temporary distraction from the U.S. focus on Iran’s nuclear program. And if the ending is as “happy” as it now seems, the whole incident will look like a set up for a staged demonstration of “mercy” by the Iranian government (read: we’re not as bad as you Westerners thought).
Yet justice—not mercy—demanded that Ms. Saberi be released until her appeal was heard. Both trials were speedy (the first, was too quick), but where does it leave Ms. Saberi now? Will she feel free to resume her Iranian studies and her journalistic work? Will she be granted a press card? Or has the ordeal served a more malign purpose as a further, more serious warning of what might happen the next time a woman with American citizenship dares to practice freedom of the press in Iran?
Karen Sue Smith