Wednesday, May 5, 2010


When American journalist Roxana Saberi was falsely imprisoned in Iran, I and other residents of North Dakota followed her case closely, because she is from Fargo, ND. She moved there with her Iranian-born father and Japanese mother when she was a child. She graduated from Fargo North High School with honors in 1994 and from Concordia College across the river in Moorhead, MN three years later. She was crowned Miss North Dakota in 1997 and was among the top 10 Miss America finalists a year later. Aided by scholarship money, she has earned two master's degrees, from Northwestern University's School of Journalism and Cambridge University, England.

Saberi moved to her father's homeland in 2003 to work for US-based Feature Story News and to complete a master’s degree in Iranian studies. FSN distributed her television and radio reports to a wide range of broadcasters around the world. In 2006, the Iranian authorities revoked Saberi's press accreditation and closed the FSN bureau in Iran. However, she maintained a second press accreditation, permitting her to freelance for the BBC. But in late 2006, it was also peremptorily revoked. Saberi continued to file occasional reports for NPR, IPS and ABC Radio.

Saberi decided to stay in Iran and finish writing what she describes as a balanced book about Iran, a country she deeply loved. Her personal nightmare began on Jan. 31, 2009, when she was arrested on the orders of the Islamic Revolutionary Court.
She was suspected of being a spy because, she was told, she had interviewed dozens of people for her book. She was accused of using the book as a cover to gather intelligence for the CIA. From then on, her story becomes a Catch-22 type nightmare. No matter how much she denied the accusations, no one listened. "I felt there was nothing more I can say to these men", she ultimately decided.  "The only way I could change their minds about me was to change their minds about America, and that was an impossible feat."

Finally, under great duress, she gave a false confession after being told she would be set free if she confessed but faced years of imprisonment and even execution if she did not. She later came to regret this decision, and recanted her story. From that time on she went on periodic hunger strikes rather than "confess" again. Her captors later told her that they knew all along that her "confession" was a lie.

Saberi waited five weeks to even meet her attorney, and he turned out to be incompetent, to say the least. Repeated futile trips to court did nothing but prove that the judge was conducting a ludicrous kangaroo court. She was eventually sentenced to eight years in prison.

Word of Saberi's imprisonment finally reached her parents and American officials. Unbeknownst to her, a groundswell of support to free her was underway. North Dakota's two senators, Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, and its representative, Earl Pomeroy, worked tirelessly toward that end. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton demanded her release, and even President Obama got into the act. Great pressure was exerted on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by world leaders, journalists and human rights organizations such as Amnesty International.

Obviously, their efforts worked. In April 2009 Ahmadinejad declared that Saberi "must have her legal right to defend herself". The next month, an appeals court reduced the charge against her from espionage to possessing classified information (a charge Saberi denies) and cut her eight-year sentence to a two-year suspended sentence. She walked out of Evin Prison on May 11, 2009.

"Between Two Worlds" affirms Saberi as an excellent journalist. Reading this vividly-detailed book was an extremely painful experience. Even though Saberi was not physically tortured during her captivity, she was placed under "severe psychological and mental pressure". Her captors blindfolded her during days of interrogation, held her in solitary confinement, and initially would not allow her to inform anyone of her whereabouts.

Reading the book was also an exercise in frustration and futility. So often, I wanted to strangle her captors, interrogators, her lawyer, the judges and other players for conducting the elaborate farce that Iran substitutes for due process of law. I call them nuts, she describes them as paranoid. "And it was people with this kind of mind-set," she wrote, "who held so much power in the Islamic Republic".

After being freed, Saberi returned with her parents to Fargo and wrote "Between Two Worlds" there. She says she still loves Iran, and would like to someday finish the book she had started there. She continues to be haunted by the memory of fellow prisoners who are still imprisoned or who have died because they didn't have the attention and support of the free world behind them that she did.

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