Roxana Saberi: Out of Iranian Prison, Into a Soap Opera

In an unexpectedly swift move, a Tehran court reduced the sentence of Iranian-American reporter Roxana Saberi and released her from prison on Monday, only a day after she appealed her case in court. Last month, Saberi had been sentenced to eight years imprisonment on charges of spying for the United States, causing tension between the two countries at a time when President Barack Obama had declared his Administration’s intention to improve relations with Iran.

Just before the official announcement came, Saberi’s parents and lawyers, as well as dozens of reporters, had gathered in front of Tehran’s Evin prison in anticipation of her release. Reza Saberi, the reporter’s father, was visibly expectant, and said that finally “things were moving on a rational track.” The reporter’s mother paced in front of the entrance impatiently, at times stopping to stand with her arms akimbo and dropping her head, at others squatting down to sob into a napkin. When the journalist was finally released, she was taken through a back door, out of reporters’ view. Later, in front of her home in the north of Tehran, her father said she was in good health and had been taken to a relative’s house to rest. He had come to collect a few things for her, he said, and the next days would be spent “preparing her departure from Iran.” (See pictures of the contemporary face of Iran.)

Saberi is free to leave Iran, even though her two-year prison term for spying has only been suspended. The only stipulation was that she not commit a criminal act within the next five years. If that requirement is met, the sentence will expire and she will be cleared.

Iranian intelligence officials had been particularly suspicious of a trip Saberi had made to Israel, as well as her relationship with U.S. government officials. “From an intelligence perspective, there were issues that were sensitive, but Saberi was able to convince the judges that there was no intention of espionage whatsoever,” said one of her lawyers, Saleh Nikbakht. (See pictures of daily life in Iran.)

Nikbakht and her other lawyer Abdolsamad Khoramshahi told TIME that the turning point in the five-hour appeals court session on Sunday was their argument that Iran and the United States were not at war. Saberi had initially been charged with spying for an enemy country. Nikbakht explained that in 2003, when another journalist and political analyst, Abbas Abdi, was charged with the same crime for publishing a poll that showed 74% of Iranians favored dialogue with the United States, he proved in court that this charge was legally unsound because Iran was not at war with the U.S., a point emphasized by citing a ruling by the Iranian parliament’s National Security Commission, which was, most importantly, approved by the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This same argument, Nikbakht said, persuaded the judges that, “from a purely legal point of view, Saberi’s actions were free of that crime. There is no basis at all for espionage in her file.”

In the end, the court found Saberi guilty based on Article 505 of Iran’s Islamic Penal Code, which states, in loose terms, that any person who collects classified information and puts it at the service of “others” with the goal of destabilizing national security is committing a crime. Previously, Saberi had been charged with putting that information at the service of an “enemy country that Iran is at war with,” according to Nikbakht. That wording was dropped, reducing her crime.

Due to the national security nature of the case, no one except Saberi herself and her two lawyers were allowed in the closed court on Sunday. One reporter who caught a glimpse of her as she left the court building said Saberi was wearing a black chador, “pale and emaciated.” (Saberi had been on a hunger strike last week.) Both her lawyers told TIME the court session was extremely fair, and Nikbakht said, “What has happened is a victory for justice in Iran.” (See pictures of the fashion styles of Muslim women from iran to Oman.)

The U.S.-born reporter of Iranian and Japanese descent had become a cause celebre back home in America because of her incarceration and sentencing. A former Miss North Dakota, she studied journalism at Northwestern University before moving to Iran six years ago. Before her press credentials were withdrawn in 2006, Saberi had been a freelance reporter for various media outlets, including the BBC World Service, NPR, and Fox News.

Abdi, the analyst whose case was cited in winning Saberi’s release, was surprised by the ruling. (He spent two years in prison before being acquitted.) Said he: “These are all just political games.” Without the international pressure, as well as appeals by both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, many suspect, Saberi could still be sitting in prison, like others charged with similar crimes, whose cases have not received similar international attention. Among them is Silva Harotonian, an Iranian-Armenian humanitarian aide worker charged with “plotting a soft revolution.”

Even as Saberi’s parents rejoiced at her release there was additional drama in front of the prison. Also waiting there was internationally acclaimed filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi, who had published an open letter last month declaring that Saberi was his fiancee. He told TIME that he believed it was in great part because of his endeavors that Saberi was being released so quickly. He said he had a meeting with government and judiciary officials a few days ago, in which he explained to them the importance of Saberi appearing at the opening of his new film on Thursday at the Cannes Film Festival, “because she was going to talk about the Persian Gulf. I told them it would be good for Iran.” Ghobadi has cited Saberi as a co-writer on his latest film.

There was clear friction between Ghobadi and Saberi’s parents, who kept themselves several feet apart from the director. At one point, Ghobadi approached Saberi’s visibly shaken mother, but she pushed him away, motioning him away with her hands. After Ghobadi’s letter, Reza Saberi announced that he could not confirm Ghobadi as his daughter’s fiancee. One source close to the family said they perceive him as taking advantage of her recent newsworthiness to publicize his film, and wonder why he was not speaking out for her before her case attracted such international attention. Ghobadi said he had been ordered to keep silent by sources he could not reveal, and finally broke his silence when he “could no longer hold it.”

The most plausible explanation for Saberi’s immediate release came from a source close to the case, who asked for anonymity. “The government simply did not want to have this hugely sensationalized and publicized case hovering over it right before the elections. [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad asked [Judiciary Chief Mahmoud Hashemi] Shahroudi to put an end to this,” the source said. (Read why Ahmadinejad was intervening in the Saberi case.)

With only about a month left until Iran’s presidential elections, as well as a generally positive mood among Iranians for better relations with the administration of President Obama, it appears that Saberi’s case had become too much of a liability for Iran. Certainly, her release is an immense relief for her family and friends, but ironically, it also appears to be a relief for the Islamic Republic.

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