May 13, 2009

The Independent: Secret War Report Led to Spy Charges for Roxana Saberi

One of the potential pitfalls for those of us bloggers who cover news stories is that of the knee-jerk reaction. It is all too easy to react quickly to a story without having read or heard all of the information. The recent case of Roxana Sabieri, the Iranian-American journalist who was recently sentenced in Iran to eight years for spying, is very typical of the knee-jerk reaction. Of course, there were several other factors that made Ms. Roxana a cause celebré. The fact that Ms. Roxana is pretty certainly didn't hurt her. (If you think I'm being sexist, don't forget the numerous other cases of attractive women and girls the media and bloggers have fawned over.) Add to the fact that Ms. Roxana's arrest and trial made for a story similar to the typical "damsel in distress" fairy-tale or Lifetime channel "women in jeapordy" movie, with the "villain" in this case being Iran (and a Muslim country to boot). It's no surprise that the public went gaga over her story.

Which made the linked article over at The Independent (UK) all the more interesting for having provided some of the missing details. For example, the charge of spying was not simply a trumped up charge, but had some basis in fact:

A joyful Roxana Saberi yesterday thanked those who helped win her release as her lawyer revealed his client had been convicted of spying in part because she had a copy of a confidential Iranian report on the war in Iraq.

Ms Saberi, a freelance journalist who was freed on Monday after four months in prison in Tehran, had copied the report "out of curiosity" while she worked as a freelance translator for a powerful body connected to Iran's ruling clerics, said the lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht.

It turned into a key part of the prosecution's case against Ms Saberi during her secret, closed-door trial in mid-April before an Iranian security court, Mr Nikbakht said. Prosecutors had also cited a trip to Israel that Ms Saberi had made in 2006, he said. Iran bars its citizens from visiting Israel, its regional nemesis. (Emphasis mine.)

Now certainly the Iranian government didn't help their image in their rush to judgment:

Ms Saberi's original trial was a swift, single session that her father said had lasted only 15 minutes. She didn't have a chance to speak and she was sentenced to eight years in prison, drawing an outcry from Washington.

But she spoke in an appeals court on Sunday, explaining her side to the judges, Mr Nikbakht said.

Still, she had done wrong, as she admitted to the court:

Ms Saberi had admitted that she had copied the document two years ago but said she had not passed it on to the Americans as prosecutors had claimed. She had apologised, saying it had been a mistake to take the report.

At the time, Ms Saberi was doing occasional translations for the website of the Expediency Council, which is made up of clerics who mediate between the legislature, the presidency and Iran's clerical leadership over constitutional disputes. Mr Nikbakht gave no details on what was in the document because it remains confidential.

Ms Saberi also told the appeals court that she had engaged in no activities against Iran during her visit to Israel, Mr Nikbakht said.

The court accepted her explanation and reduced her sentence to a suspended two-year term, prompting her release.

And to make matters worse for Westerners who despise Iran and its President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the latter comes out of the story looking like one of the good guys:

Another of Ms Saberi's lawyers, Abdolsamad Khorramshahi, said a letter from the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to the court, urging it to give Ms Saberi's case a complete review, had helped bring about the sentence reduction.

Update: Moon of Alabama comes to similar conclusions:

Iran had good reason and acted within its laws in arresting and sentencing Roxana Saberi. The 'western' media used the case for the usual Iran bashing. Ironically this publicity gave Iran the opening for offering a deal.

The speed of the appeal sentence and the probation are unusual. The personal intervention of Ahmedinejad and the presence of Vali Reza Nasr in Tehran point to a government deal. For immediately setting free Saberi, Iran will get some U.S. concession.

Within a few days we are likely to see some reporting in Iranian media that the three diplomats arrested in Arbil two years ago have been set free.

A small step on the larger path of U.S. Iranian détente.

2 comments:

spincitysd said...

Not to get too technical but the proper charge against Roxana Saberi would not be espionage but improper handling of classified documents.

As she was known as a stringer for both BBC and NPR exactly why was she allowed to handle the sensitive material in the first place? Seems that government of the Islamic Republic of Iran was incredibly sloppy with its handling of its sensitive documents.

Why was she allowed to see the confidential report in the first place and why was she allowed to make a copy of it if she was not cleared to do such a thing? What controls did the Iranian Government have to prevent a young woman's "curiosity" from getting the better of it?

I ask these question because I once had a clearance in the military ( no great shakes, it was only up to "confidential.') Even if you believe every bit of the story, the breach was extremely minor, something that maybe warranted deportment and perhaps a fine. Eight years in jail from a Kangaroo court should have never have happened if the Islamic Republic of Iran was keeping its eye on the PR ball.

JDsg said...

@ James:

As she was known as a stringer for both BBC and NPR exactly why was she allowed to handle the sensitive material in the first place?Perhaps a lack of decent translators? Having known several translators, I know that normally the work flow goes in the direction of the translator's mother tongue. (Meaning, if the translator grew up with English being his/her mother tongue, then they would translate from the other language into English.) In Roxana's case, because she's Iranian-American, I'm not exactly sure which language she would consider to be her mother tongue (perhaps both). But her competence in English may have caused her superiors to disregard her journalism background.


Why was she allowed to see the confidential report in the first place and why was she allowed to make a copy of it if she was not cleared to do such a thing?I get the impression she was not cleared to make a copy in the first place, that she did this surreptitiously.


...something that maybe warranted deportment and perhaps a fine.I get the impression from the article that the family (parents, anyway) lives in Tehran. As she apparently has Iranian citizenship, I don't think the government can deport her.


Eight years in jail from a Kangaroo court should have never have happened if the Islamic Republic of Iran was keeping its eye on the PR ball.This is the big problem for them, isn't it? What started as a petty crime (buying wine) turned into a minor scandal with some justification for legal proceedings, but with no apparent regard for how the proceedings would be perceived outside of the country.