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Saberi's release is one small step in Iran

Tehran frees the American journalist, but the larger case of human rights abuses remains.

May 12, 2009

The release of American freelance journalist Roxana Saberi after four months in an Iranian prison is a welcome decision that begins to redress the miscarriage of justice in her case, but not the larger problems that bedevil Iran, such as human rights abuses under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his predecessors or the country's disregard for the rule of law.

Saberi was detained in January and denied her rights under Iranian law to be charged and to see an attorney within 24 hours of arrest. She initially was held in solitary confinement, then was coerced into issuing a confession of spying that was used against her in a one-hour trial on April 18, according to the Netherlands-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. She was convicted of cooperating with an enemy government and sentenced to eight years in prison.

The Obama administration called the charge baseless and pushed for Saberi's release, but there was no way to independently evaluate the case against her because neither the evidence nor the trial were public. On Monday, an appeals court reduced the charge to "intent" to violate national security and gave Saberi a two-year suspended sentence that a judicial spokesman called a gesture of mercy. Although this led to Saberi's release from Evin Prison, it did not address the need for a transparent judicial process. Creating one is in Tehran's best interest because it would not only serve defendants who are wrongly accused, it would blunt criticism of the Iranian government when it justly convicts criminals.

Human rights activists say there are several hundred political prisoners jailed in Iran solely for exercising rights that in the West are often taken for granted, such as freedom of expression, association and assembly. Like Saberi, at least three of those with professional ties to the United States have been convicted of spying without due process. Silva Harotonian, an Iranian employee of the U.S.-based International Research & Exchanges Board, was detained last June, convicted of spying and sentenced to three years in jail. Similarly, Iranian doctors Arash and Kamiar Alaei, known internationally for their work in HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, were convicted of supporting an enemy government and sentenced to six and three years, respectively. All three were suspected of trying to foment a "velvet revolution" in Iran.

We believe Iran should allow international human rights organizations or independent jurists access to review these and other human rights cases and provide fair and open trials to all prisoners. Defendants should be innocent until proven guilty, and the burden of proof must be on the prosecution.

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