May 12, 2009

By Ladane Nasseri

May 11 (Bloomberg) -- U.S.-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi was freed from prison in Tehran after a court cut her sentence for espionage from eight years in jail to a two-year term, suspended for five years.

The court in Tehran heard an appeal yesterday by 32-year- old Saberi, who was convicted last month after a one-day trial behind closed doors on a charge of spying for the U.S.

“The sentence has been changed to two years suspended,” Abdolsamad Khorramshahi, her lawyer, said today in a phone interview in Tehran. “She is free and can stay or leave the country. It is up to her.”

The original verdict on the journalist, a dual American- Iranian citizen who was raised in the U.S. and lived in Iran for the last six years, was announced April 18. Her conviction and imprisonment drew protests from the U.S. government and human rights groups, with President Barack Obama dismissing the spying allegations against her.

Saberi’s suspended sentence will lapse provided she doesn’t commit an offense in five years, Khorramshahi said, adding that she has been banned from working as a journalist in Iran during that period. “When the verdict was given she wept out of joy. She was very happy, she thanked the court,” said the lawyer, who said he was satisfied with the “fair” ruling.

‘A Pawn’

“I am glad this injustice has been reversed and Roxana Saberi is now free to return home,” Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar said today in a statement. “The government of Iran should never have used this young American journalist as a pawn in their international game.”

Saberi graduated from Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota.

Mohammad Ali Abtahi, who served as a vice president under former President Mohammad Khatami between 2001 and 2004, also welcomed the outcome.

Saberi’s case was an example of “using human life and freedoms for political gain,” said Abtahi, who is now an adviser to ex-parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi, a candidate in the June 12 presidential election. “This behavior is neither good for Iran’s judiciary nor its government.

“The government may be trying to calm the internal situation before the elections,” Abtahi said in a phone interview from Tehran. “It may, as well, be a message of cooperation to the West in anticipation of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s victory.”

Nuclear Program

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has stoked tensions with the West over issues including Iran’s nuclear program since his election four years ago, intervened in the Saberi case on April 19, calling on Tehran’s chief prosecutor to allow Saberi to defend herself.

Saberi’s “case is not political and has never been,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi said today in comments aired live by state television. “This case is of a legal nature.”

Saberi, who has an Iran-born father and a mother of Japanese descent, has worked as a freelance reporter for international news organizations such as National Public Radio, the British Broadcasting Corp. and Fox News.

She was arrested in late January, with the authorities initially accusing her of having worked illegally after her press accreditation had been revoked.

The journalist’s parents, Reza Saberi and his wife Akiko, who had traveled from Fargo, North Dakota, to Tehran to help secure her release, drove their daughter away as she was freed from Evin, Agence France-Presse reported. Reza said he aims to take his daughter back home to the U.S. “as soon as possible,” AFP said.