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U.S. journalist in Iran freed from prison

Authorities release Roxana Saberi on a suspended sentence. Her lawyers say she is free to leave the country immediately. U.S. 'heartened,' Clinton says.

May 12, 2009|Borzou Daragahi and Ramin Mostaghim

BEIRUT AND TEHRAN — A copy of a classified Iranian government report about the U.S. war in Iraq in the possession of journalist Roxana Saberi was a key piece of evidence that led to her conviction on espionage charges, one of the Iranian American journalist's lawyers disclosed Monday.

But a letter from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling for a careful review of the case helped secure her swift release Monday, another of her lawyers said, in an appellate court ruling that surprised Iran watchers and removed a stumbling block in the effort to improve U.S.-Iranian relations.

Iranian intelligence and security officials had argued fiercely for her imprisonment up to the last moment of her lengthy appeals court hearing Sunday, the second attorney said.

But the court slashed Saberi's sentence from eight years in prison to a suspended two-year term and ordered her released. Saberi's parents and lawyers said she would be leaving Iran within days.

As the appellate court announced the ruling, the 32-year-old journalist wept. "I saw her tears of joy, and this was the best moment," said Abdul-Samad Khorramshahi, Saberi's lead attorney.

Analysts say Saberi's case carries implications for the Obama administration as it seeks to improve relations with Tehran and resolve long-standing grievances over Iran's nuclear program and support for militant anti-Israeli organizations.

Saberi's arrest demonstrated the unpredictability of Iran's fragmented, multilayered political and security system, where dissidents, politicians and journalists are sometimes arrested for transgressing undefined ideological and national security rules, such as by having contact with the West.

But Saberi's release also showed a system capable of flexibility, pragmatism and even damage control. Calls by some senior Iranian officials to review the case suggest that at least some of them were well aware of the harm Saberi's continued imprisonment was doing to the country's image and opted to do away with the distraction rather than satisfy hard-liners.

"If we assume that this was due to infighting in the government between those who wanted to undermine diplomacy and those who want to give it a chance, I would conclude that the latter group has been able to succeed in a rather swift and impressive way," said Trita Parsi, president of the Washington-based National Iranian American Council and author of "Treacherous Alliances," about relations between Iran, the United States and Israel.

"The amount of political will and maneuvering it takes to reduce an eight-year sentence to two years and then commute the last two years and release her on the spot is far greater than having a one-day kangaroo court and sentencing her in the first place," he said.

Even Stephane Lherbier, a French sailor arrested after straying into Iranian waters and initially accused of espionage, served 15 months in prison on a maritime trespassing charge.

Saberi faced far graver accusations and more formidable adversaries. After weeks in isolation and continuous interrogation inside Tehran's Evin Prison, she was hustled into a courtroom April 14 and convicted of espionage in a trial that lasted less than an hour. Authorities said she confessed to passing on intelligence to the United States.

Through her lawyer, Saberi quickly recanted, insisting her confession was made under duress.

Khorramshahi filed an appeal. Saberi quickly became an international cause celebre. Portraits of the daughter of a Japanese-born mother and Iranian-born father stared out from newspapers and websites around the world. A distorted but compelling narrative of menacing mullahs locking up a former beauty queen inspired online petition drives and Facebook pages.

But forces continued to work behind the scenes to thwart attempts to release Saberi. High-profile human rights attorneys say they were barred from joining her defense.

A prosecutor and two Intelligence Ministry officials squared off against Saberi, Khorramshahi and co-counsel Saleh Nikbakht before a two-judge appellate panel Sunday.

The prosecutor accused Saberi of passing on to American officials a classified Iranian report about U.S. involvement in Iraq that she obtained while working at the Strategic Studies Center of Iran's Expediency Council, a powerful board of clerics that mediates government disputes, Nikbakht said.

She was also accused of visiting Israel four or five times, considered a crime for Iranian nationals, and accused of having sexual relations with Iranian officials.

Saberi apologized for possessing the think tank document; she denied having any intimate relations with Iranian officials and said she made two visits to Israel to look for journalism work, Nikbakht said.

Her lawyers produced court rulings and official statements to argue that the United States was not a hostile state like Israel and that simply having contact with American officials did not prove Saberi was passing on information, Nikbakht said.

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