Heather Horiuchi of the San Francisco-based Nichi Bei Times writes a comprehensive piece on Roxana, “Japanese American Reporter Faces 8 Years in Iranian Prison,” published on Apr. 30.
Born to parents from remarkably different parts of the world, Roxana Saberi’s may be an unlikely story. Daughter of Reza and Akiko Saberi, of Iran and Japan, respectively, and raised in Fargo, N.D., Saberi’s life has been a testament to diversity and democracy — until now. Three months ago, on Jan. 31, Saberi was detained in her father’s homeland reportedly for purchasing a bottle of wine, which is illegal in that country.
On April 18 Saberi, who has lived in Iran for the past six years and reported for National Public Radio and BBC, was sentenced to eight years in prison — following charges of espionage for the United States — after a closed-door trial which lasted one day, as reported by NPR and other outlets.
Saberi turned 32 on April 26 inside Evin Prison in Tehran.
According to NPR, while Saberi’s press credentials were revoked in 2006, “the government tolerated her reporting short news stories out of Iran.”
Saberi’s father, Reza, told the news outlet that his daughter had made “some statements” since she had been detained, but they were made “under pressure.” Upon being questioned again, she denied her previous statements, and again at the court hearing, she denied what was contained in her written statement.
NPR has reported that Saberi holds dual citizenship in the United States and Iran.
Saberi’s detention comes in the midst of an election season in Iran, where President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seeks re-election on June 12. Supporters say Saberi is caught up between the delicate and tenuous Iran-U.S. relations. For his part, Ahmadinejad has called on Iran’s judicial system to ensure justice, according to news reports.
A former Iranian prisoner, Ali M. Shakeri — a political researcher and peace activist who spent 140 days in Evin Prison — called the charges of espionage against Saberi “baloney.”
The advisory board member of the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at the University of California, Irvine, told the Nichi Bei Times, “There is no capacity for Iranian, Iranian American journalists or any foreign journalists to do anything to harm Iranian interests and be accused of espionage.”
The former prisoner said that while he was never physically tortured, he spent 114 days in solitary confinement, and was interrogated more than 50 times for several hours each time.
Once charged with plotting a revolution — among at least 25 charges that were found to be “baseless” and later dropped — Shakeri called the lack of transparency in the Iranian justice department, regarding the defendant, a “cancer.”
Human Rights lawyer Abdolfatah Soltani told npr.org on April 21 that he, along with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, a prominent human rights attorney, were denied access to Saberi, who is their client.
Sources — including Shakeri — have told the Nichi Bei Times that they hope and even expect to see Saberi, who reportedly went on a hunger strike on April 21, freed.
Someone in Saberi’s situation faces “so much uncertainty” and likely has “very
limited contact with anyone from the outside,” including her lawyer, said Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University, the school from which Saberi holds a master’s degree in journalism.
Saberi also holds a master’s degree in international relations from Cambridge University, and was pursuing a third master’s degree in Iran.
Saberi’s hunger strike has caused concern for her health, particularly given reports that she is already “physically weak,” said Hurd.
Hurd, whose work focuses on areas including relations between Europe, the United States and the Middle East, said that Saberi’s current situation reflects a “scare tactic by the regime.”
Hurd described Saberi’s arrest, trial and sentence as an “attempt to shore up the hard-line of the Islamic Republic, which is crumbling.”
As Iran’s presidential elections approach, and opposition to Ahmadinejad increases, Hurd believes that “we’re going to see things like this happen.”
As a result, Hurd said she expects to see a “chilling effect” on writers and researchers, as well as on Iran’s relationships with countries such as, but not limited to, the United States.
Such problems are not unknown to foreign reporters in the country. As of Dec. 1, 2008, five journalists were jailed in Iran, according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Prior to being detained, Saberi had been doing research for a book she was writing.
U.S. Officials Respond
On April 18, following Saberi’s sentence, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement that she was “deeply disappointed” by the sentencing of Saberi by the Iranian judiciary. She further stated “we are working closely with the Swiss Protecting Presence to obtain details about the court’s decision, and to ensure her well being. Ms. Saberi was born and raised in the United States, yet chose to travel to the Islamic Republic of Iran due to her desire to learn more about her cultural heritage… We will continue to vigorously raise our concerns to the Iranian government.”
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs echoed Clinton’s statement in an April 18 press briefing, where he said President Barack Obama “is deeply disappointed at this news. His thoughts and prayers are with [Saberi] and her family. And I think we will continue to express the concerns that we have through the Swiss to the Iranian government, and make sure they underscore and understand our deep concern for these actions.”
Hurd has not seen “a tremendous amount of pressure” from United States leaders, a strategy that she understands.
“People who know Iran well suggested it’s a good idea for the United States… to not push too hard,” the Northwestern professor said. To do otherwise might “encourage the people who are holding Saberi to hold on even tighter.”
That leaves members of the news media, non-governmental organizations, think tanks and academics to advocate for the imprisoned journalist, Hurd said, adding that it is “important to keep calling for her release.”
According to its Website, the Council on American-Islamic Relations was “preparing to send a delegation to Iran to seek” Saberi’s release. The organization’s communications director, Ibrahim Hooper, told the Nichi Bei Times on April 28 that they are waiting for their visas.
News reports have indicated that the Rev. Jesse Jackson, along with a delegation from his Rainbow Push Coalition, had applied for a visa and was interested in “meet[ing] with the appropriate religious and political leaders” in Iran.
On a larger scale, Hurd is optimistic that June will bring a change in leadership in Iran, and a more “cooperative tenor.”
Hurd expects to see Saberi’s release, though whether before or after the summer elections, she did not know.
“We’re kind of in a holding point until the election,” Hurd said.
In the meantime, Shakeri would like the two countries to conduct “diplomatic engagement.” He added, “Without dialogue, no peace happens.”
Shakeri, who was born in Iran, said that his imprisonment has left a “scar that stays with me,” a scar that would stay with Saberi for the rest of her life.
Like Hurd, Jack C. Doppelt, a professor of journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, is mindful of the need for discretion on the part of some of Saberi’s supporters.
Saberi’s former journalism professor called the one-day trial “outrageous” and “galling,” and added that “the only reason I’m not more vocal than I would be otherwise, [is that I’m] overly cautions as to whether it can worsen the situation for her.”
Craig Gima, a reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, however, was more direct. He described Saberi’s situation as a “blatant injustice.”
“She’s a journalist. She’s not a spy,” said Gima, who interacted with Saberi during two UNITY Journalists of Color, Inc. conventions.
Gima penned the editorial piece “Iranian Prison Keeps Journalist in Darkness” for the Star-Bulletin, which was reprinted in the Nichi Bei Times.
Despite all that is against her, Saberi “at least has the benefit of being an American,” Gima said, pointing out that other political prisoners in Iran, and throughout the world, are not receiving any news coverage.
Euna Lee and Laura Ling, American reporters with Current TV, have been detained in North Korea ever since being arrested March 17 on that country’s border with China. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore is the co-founder and chairman of the board of Current TV, a San Francisco-based media company.
CPJ stated that 125 journalists alone were behind bars throughout the world in 2008.
As for the two American reporters, Gima suggested that “publicity might serve the North Koreans more than help” the journalists.
Doppelt, however, asserted that “When anybody is wrongly imprisoned, all the coverage you can get is ideal.”
In a broader sense, Gima believes that “the key to freeing people is for regular people to read and be involved and be educated in what’s going on in the world.”
In the meanwhile, “in Roxana’s case, you have to cross your fingers. You don’t know what the judiciary system is going to do,” Gima acknowledged.
From North Dakota to Iran
Saberi herself would not be comfortable with all of the attention her case has received, said Cindy Larson-Casselton, who teaches in the communication studies department at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn.
Larson-Casselton’s late husband Harold “Rusty” Casselton was Saberi’s academic advisor at Concordia, where Saberi graduated from before attending Northwestern.
Saberi became a role model to Larson-Casselton’s daughters, who she used to babysit. Saberi has a great “love of life, and is very unassuming,” said Larson-Casselton, who praised the “integrity and grace” with which Saberi approaches each day.
Merrie Sue Holtan — whose children are close to Saberi’s age — has known Saberi since her days of playing high school soccer and competing in beauty pageants. Saberi is a former Miss North Dakota, and was a finalist in the 1997 Miss America competition. She also took Holtan’s interviewing class at Concordia College.
Noting Saberi’s mixed heritage, Holtan said the Nikkei “always had a kind of a curiosity about the world… In her case, it is kind of a search for identity. A bridge to identity that connects her and who she is and where she belongs.”
As a student, she would go “above and beyond the call of duty,” said Holtan, who teaches at Minnesota State University Moorhead.
Holtan added that Saberi is both “introspective and a good listener.”
Doppelt noted that the Nikkei is generous with her time, particularly having helped students “get acclimated abroad.”
She cares about “how people think, who they are. She’s that kind of a reporter,” he explained. It’s “in her nature to be a bridge builder.”
Doppelt called his former student “a one-person United Nations.”
“What Roxana is all about as a person and as a journalist, is trying to foster mutual cross-cultural understandings to make the world a better place,” said Margo Melnicove, a nationally award-winning broadcast journalist who met and mentored Saberi through NPR’s Diversity Initiative seminar.
“If you knew Roxana as I do, you would realize the charge of espionage is preposterous. Roxana does not have a devious bone in her body,” Melnicove said.
In addition to calling Saberi “highly accomplished,” Melnicove noted her “tremendous compassion and empathy.”
Prior to moving to Iran, Saberi had also considered working as a reporter in her mother’s native country, Japan, Melnicove recalled. The veteran reporter introduced Saberi to Simon Marks, the president and chief correspondent of Feature Story News, an independent broadcast news agency, which hired her to report from Iran.
Melnicove, who currently teaches at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, will deliver Concordia’s commencement address on May 3 in Saberi’s place.
Last fall Saberi mentioned in an e-mail to Holtan that she was conducting research for a potential book. Saberi had also considered coming home, Holtan recalled.
Saberi is engaged to the Iranian film director Bahman Ghobadi, who noted in an open letter to his fiancée published in a The New York Times news blog that he blamed himself for having asked Saberi to remain in Iran with him, even though she initially wanted to leave.
The Nikkei, however, was “comfortable” and “happy” in Iran, said Gima, who added that her choice to remain and work in the country was not without risks. He praised Saberi as someone who was doing her best to bring “light into dark corners in the world.”
Sometimes journalists “have to take risks” if they want to tell stories, he said.
For now international support for Saberi is growing, and hope remains unwavering for her timely release.
“I am so optimistic that within the weeks hopefully her case will be reviewed,” and she will be released, said Shakeri.
“This is what I am expecting. And what I am wishing and what I am hoping.”
Saberi’s supporters have been encouraged to write to their Iranian embassy or mission. In the United States, letters may be sent to:
Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee
Permanent Mission of the
Islamic Republic of Iran
622 Third Ave.
New York, NY 10017
For updates, visit http://www.freeroxana.net or twitter.com/freeroxana.
What my Japanese identity and heritage mean to me:
Note: According to Saberi’s literary agent Diana Finch, the following unpublished statement, which she penned about her Japanese heritage, are from a biographical description she was putting together.
I am certainly proud of being half-Japanese. I admire the Japanese for their work ethic, motivation to progress, and long-sightedness, which have helped them rebuild their country in such a short period after World War II. I also value their ability to mix tradition and modernity, the respect they give to their elders, and the hospitality they show to friends and strangers alike. I am proud that Japan is known for these characteristics in many parts of the world, including Iran.
I sometimes notice certain typical Japanese traits in my own behavior and thinking that can be both positive and negative: For example, I often work very hard to achieve something in the future, which can be good — as long as I don’t forget to enjoy the present.
— Roxana Saberi