Saberi released on appeal

Alexandra Finkel

Northwestern alumna Roxana Saberi has been freed from an Iranian prison after an appeals court suspended her jail sentence, according to international news sources.

The appeals court reduced Saberi’s prison sentence from eight years to a suspended two-year sentence, her lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht, told the international press.

Saberi walked free Monday afternoon from Evin prison, where she has been detained since January.

“I’m okay. I don’t want to make any comments, but I am okay,” Saberi told the Agence France-Presse.

Saberi is “entitled to leave Iran immediately,” Nikbakht said. She is banned from working as a journalist in Iran for five years.

The appeals court heard the case Sunday, almost a month after her first court appearance in a closed, single-session trial.

Saberi, Medill ’99, was charged with espionage in April and sentenced to eight years in prison. She was initially arrested in January for allegedly buying wine, although authorities later claimed she was taken into custody for reporting without press credentials. Saberi has worked as a freelance journalist in Iran since 2003, reporting for various international news outlets including BBC, NPR and FOX News.

The FreeRoxana campaign, composed of NU faculty, students, alumni and others, launched in March to spread awareness of Saberi’s imprisonment. The campaign organized a hunger strike on her behalf that began May 3.

Saberi supporters across the country were excited to hear of her release.

Medill Prof. Jack Doppelt said he was “somewhere between ecstatic and elated” when he heard the news Monday morning.

“I don’t know if I was expecting it,” he said. “But I was holding my breath and envisioning it.”

Doppelt, who spearheaded Medill’s efforts in the FreeRoxana campaign, said Saberi’s release was a welcome result after a repeated lack of transparency by the Iranian government.

“This was not the natural flow of justice in the Islamic Republic,” he said.

Last month, the U.S. Department of State called the espionage charges “baseless.” Later, University President Henry Bienen wrote letters to Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking for their support. Both Clinton and President Obama publicly called for Saberi’s release.

Noel Clay, spokesman for the U.S. Department of State, said working with Iran was difficult because there is no American embassy in Iran.

“We don’t have a presence in Iran so we had to work through our Swiss protecting power,” Clay said. “But we’ve been calling for her release all along.”

Many international organizations, including Reporters Without Borders, the Asian American Journalists Association and the Committee to Protect Journalists also acknowledged the difficulty involved in dealing with Iranian authorities.

There was no evidence presented to support the espionage charge in the first trial, said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, the Committee to Protect Journalist’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator.

“We were hoping the second trial would be more fair,” Dayem said. “The initial eight-year sentence was very harsh.”

Dayem attributed Saberi’s release to her lawyers as well as her supporters across the globe.

“The most important thing is the work that was done by her attorneys,” he said. “But some of the advocacy that was done on her behalf surely contributed.”

Some of this advocacy included the FreeRoxana campaign hunger strike. The strike, which was supposed to end Thursday, was called off when Saberi was freed, said Alexis Grant, the strike’s organizer.

Over 400 people had committed to fast on behalf of Saberi, said Grant, Medill ’05.

Grant said she believed the campaign’s efforts helped secure Saberi’s release.

“The international dialogue probably had something to do with it,” she said. “But Iran also reconsidered her case and gave her a more fair trial because they realized they had a mistake.”

Whether or not international outcry made a difference doesn’t matter right now, Doppelt said.

“Since we will never know exactly what worked and what didn’t, it’s about all the people paying attention, speaking up and having their voices heard that is important,” he said.

Lauren Mogannam contributed reporting.

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