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U.S. journalist Roxana Saberi arrives in Austria

Austrian Embassy in Tehran played a key role in helping secure her release. She and her parents will head to the United States after a short stay.

May 16, 2009|Borzou Daragahi and Julia Damianova

BEIRUT AND VIENNA — With Austria helping to secure her release, Iranian American journalist Roxana Saberi arrived in Vienna on Friday, days after she was released from prison in Iran following an appeals court decision suspending her sentence on an espionage charge.

Saberi and her parents left Tehran's Imam Khomeini airport for the Austrian capital, where they were greeted by United States Consulate officials, an American Embassy representative said. She and her father, Reza Saberi, told reporters they would stay at the home of a friend for several days before leaving for the U.S.

"I came to Vienna because I heard it was a calm and relaxing place," Saberi, smiling and at ease at the airport, said in comments broadcast by Austria's ORF television. "I know you have many questions, but I need some more time to think about what happened to me."

She said she was not prepared to talk about her months-long ordeal. "I will talk about it more in the future, I hope, but I am not prepared at this time," she said.

Austria's role in helping secure Saberi's release highlighted contrasting diplomatic approaches toward Iran. The United States has no diplomatic presence in the Islamic Republic, but Austria remains heavily engaged with Iran, pursuing business deals while pressing for improvements in its human rights record.

Austria's ambassador to Tehran, Michael Postl, speaks Persian and maintains a wide array of Iranian connections.

"We have developed a major network of contacts over the years," said Peter Launsky- Tiefenthal, spokesman for the Austrian Foreign Ministry. "This has helped to create an environment which helped to ensure her release."

Launsky-Tiefenthal said the Swiss Embassy, which represents U.S. interests in Iran, also played a key role in pushing for Saberi's release.

Hours after his daughter was freed Monday, Reza Saberi delivered a speech praising Islam and Persian poetry at a cultural center in Tehran operated by the Austrian Embassy. Launsky-Tiefenthal said the appearance was "long planned" and happened to coincide with Roxana Saberi's release.

Austria wields some economic influence in Iran. Austrian energy giant OMV conducts billions of dollars in business with the Islamic Republic. Austria's Steyr-Mannlicher has sold the country light weaponry, including high-powered rifles.

Saberi was sentenced last month to eight years in prison on a charge of possessing a classified document. But after intense international and domestic pressure, an appellate court reduced her sentence to a suspended two-year term and a five-year ban on practicing journalism in Iran.

Her lead attorney, Abdul-Samad Khorramshahi, said he spoke to Saberi shortly before she boarded the plane Friday morning.

"I told her she can come back and leave Iran again, but if she comes back to do journalism over the next five years she will have to serve two years in prison," he said in a telephone interview.

Saberi's official press credentials were revoked by Tehran in 2006, but she continued to work as a journalist while researching a book about Iran.

Authorities arrived at her house with a warrant on Jan. 30 and took her into custody. Khorramshahi dismissed the widely disseminated report that she was arrested for purchasing a bottle of wine, an explanation she gave her father during a hurried phone call from prison about 10 days after the arrest.

He also said neither Saberi's unauthorized journalism work nor the content of her reports for news outlets such as National Public Radio, the British Broadcasting Corp. or Fox News was the cause of her arrest.

"There was no charge like that in her file," he said. "We don't have anything like that in Iranian law."

From the start, her charges stemmed from her possession of a classified document about U.S. involvement in Iraq that she had copied while working as a translator for Iran's Expediency Council, a powerful board that mediates disputes between government bodies, her lawyers said.

Intelligence ministry officials alleged that she was a spy collecting information to pass on to the Americans, or even Israel, where she had visited. But Saberi said she intended to use the document for her book and had no intention of handing it to another government, Khorramshahi said.

"Roxana accepted that she shouldn't have had the document but that she didn't make use of it," he said. "It was for her book."


Damianova is a special correspondent.

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