TEHRAN, Iran – A copy of a classified Iranian government report about the U.S. war in Iraq that was in the possession of journalist Roxana Saberi was a key piece of evidence that led to her conviction on espionage charges, one of the Iranian-American journalist’s lawyers disclosed Monday.
But a letter by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling for a careful review of the case helped secure her swift release Monday, another of her lawyers said, in an appellate court ruling that surprised Iran watchers and removed a stumbling block in the effort to improve U.S.-Iranian relations.
Still, the second attorney added, Iranian intelligence and security officials argued for her imprisonment up to the last moment of her lengthy appeals court hearing Sunday.
Ultimately, they lost. The court slashed her sentence from eight years in prison to a suspended two-year prison term and ordered her freed. Saberi’s parents and lawyers said she would be leaving Iran within days.
As the appellate court announced the ruling, the 32-year-old journalist wept. “I saw her tears of joy, and this was the best moment,” said Abdul-Samad Khorramshahi, Saberi’s lead attorney.
Analysts say Saberi’s travails carry implications for the Obama administration as it seeks ways to improve relations with Iran and resolve long-standing grievances over Iran’s nuclear program and support for militant anti-Israeli organizations.
Saberi’s arrest demonstrated the unpredictability of Iran’s fragmented, multilayered political and security system, in which dissidents, politicians and journalists sometimes are arrested for transgressing undefined ideological or national security rules, such as contacting the West, with potentially damaging consequences for Iran’s international reputation.
Her release Monday showed a system capable of flexibility, pragmatism and even damage control. Calls by senior Iranian officials to review the case suggested at least some were aware of the harm Saberi’s continued imprisonment was doing to the country’s image.
“If we assume that this was due to infighting in the government between those who wanted to undermine diplomacy and those who want to give it a chance, I would conclude that the latter group has been able to succeed in a rather swift and impressive way,” said Trita Parsi, president of the Washington-based National Iranian American Council and author of “Treacherous Alliances,” about relations among Iran, the United States and Israel.
“The amount of political will and maneuvering it takes to reduce an eight-year sentence to two years and then commute the last two years and release her on the spot is far greater than having a one-day kangaroo court and sentencing her in the first place,” he said.
After weeks in isolation and continuous interrogation inside Tehran’s Evin prison, Saberi had been hustled into a courtroom April 14 and convicted of espionage in a trial that lasted less than an hour. Authorities said she confessed to passing on intelligence to the United States. Through her lawyer, Saberi recanted, insisting her confession was made under duress.
Khorramshahi filed for an appeal, and Saberi, the daughter of an Iranian-born father and Japanese-born mother, quickly became an international cause celebrity.
A prosecutor and two Intelligence Ministry officials squared off against Saberi, Khorramshahi and co-counsel Saleh Nikbakht before a two-judge appellate panel Sunday.
Monday, the court announced that it had suspended Saberi’s sentence and banned her from practicing journalism in Iran for five years.