Iranian authorities charged Roxana Saberi, Medill ’99, with espionage, Iran’s Press TV reported Wednesday. The 31-year-old freelance journalist has been detained for nearly three months at Evin prison near Tehran.
Saberi, who has been working in Iran since 2003, was arrested in late January, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Although Saberi has been charged, specifics are still unknown, said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator.
“No one has seen the charge sheet,” Dayem said. “The Iranian authorities have made a statement, but Roxana’s attorney has not even seen the actual paperwork. There is a gap in information here.”
Saberi reportedly called her father on Feb. 10 and said she had been arrested for buying a bottle of wine.
“It may have been something she was told to tell her parents to sort of calm them down,” he said. “Historically, people who are arrested for that are out the same day. This is clearly a different ball game.”
Iran’s Press TV reported Saberi confessed to the espionage charges.
“She conducted spying operations in the country by passing herself as a journalist,” said Hassan Haddad, Iran’s deputy prosecutor for security issues, according to Press TV. “She has accepted all charges and we have documented the evidence in her legal case papers.”
But Dayem said he is skeptical about the situation. Although Saberi’s press credentials were revoked in 2006, she has been openly working and filing stories since then.
“I don’t see how the Iranian authorities were previously unaware of this – the government has people working closely with all foreign journalists so the idea that they just found out about her is bogus,” he said. “One wonders why she was arrested in January if it was for filing news stories without proper accreditation. Why would it take two-plus years to make that step?”
Medill Prof. Stephan Garnett said he also finds the charges suspicious. Garnett taught Saberi when she studied journalism at NU and remembered her as an “extraordinary student.”
“I’m very stressed,” Garnett said. “She is just one of the ones who stands out as a student, but it also bothered me as a journalist – things like this happen too much.”
Although he is not very familiar with the entire situation, he said he does not believe Saberi is guilty for what she has been charged with.
“My personal belief is that she hasn’t been doing any espionage,” he said. “It’s an excuse to get her into custody.”
Medill “efforts are underway” to help with the situation, he said.
“One of (the) things I’d like to do along with other faculty members is send a letter from the State Department,” he said.
When Saberi was arrested, the Committee to Protect Journalists created and circulated a petition which has since garnered more than 10,000 signatures. Last month it was delivered to Mohammad Khazaee, a permanent representative of Iran to the United Nations, Dayem said.
“I know it doesn’t carry any legal weight,” he said. “But it does show the level of concern people have expressed over the situation.”
Dayem said the Committee to Protect Journalists is eager to know what the charges are before his organization takes further action.
“Espionage covers a number of specific offenses and so there are different categories that have different punishments associated with them,” he said. “As of right now, everything remains a bit of mystery.”
Garnett said Saberi’s case is something NU journalism students should take very seriously.
“I’ve said time and time again for anybody who’s going into journalism that there are times where you are going to have to put yourself in a dangerous position,” he said. “Student journalists and the public at large often forget this.”