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Roxana Saberi's Sham Trial

By April 14, 2009

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Off camera: Roxana Saberi, the Iranian-American journalist seen here shooting footage in Tehran in a 2003 file photo, has been on trial behind closed doors in a Tehran courtroom, on specious charges of buying wine and espionage. (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)

Leaving her to languish in Evin prison, Tehran's Bastille (or Abu Ghraib, if you prefer), for more than three months before world opinion got wind of the outrage, Iranian authorities are suddenly fast-tracking Roxana Saberi through the sham of a trial--in secret, naturally. Saberi is the 31-year-old native of Fargo, N.D., the daughter of an Iranian father. She holds dual Iranian and American citizenship and had been a stringer for the BBC, Fox News, NPR and Inter Press Services, mostly from Iran since 2003. She was arrested on specious charges in Tehran in January.

"Yesterday, the first trial session was held. She presented her final defense," judiciary spokesman Ali Reza Jamshidi told reporters. "The court will issue its verdict within the next two to three weeks."

Iranian flag
It's Iran under the ayatollahs--never an ideologically consistent bunch, except when it comes to repression and hysterical insecurity. So it's not surprising that Iranian prosecutor Hassan Zare Dehnavi, a.k.a. Hassan Haddad (Haddad is Arabic for locksmith), and the Tehran revolutionary court that arrested her, couldn't make up their mind on what charges, exactly, Saberi is standing trial.

It began in January with the claim that she was committing journalism without a license. She's been in Iran since 2003, but she last worked for NPR in 2006. Reporters Without Borders reports her father, Reza Saberi, saying that "she had not worked for the media since 2006," and that, in her father's words, "she had been concentrating since 2006 on studying Farsi and Iranian culture at a Tehran university.

That's not entirely true, but close enough: Her last byline, for Inter Press Service, dates from Dec. 11, 2007, and before that she hadn't bylined anything since January 15, 2007.

Iranian authorities then accused Saberi of buying wine. Alcohol is illegal in Iran, a dry nation whose ayatollahs, like clerics everywhere, do their drinking behind closed doors (or at least have the decency to do it in Beirut, where it keeps the Lebanese economy humming). Still, those charges couldn't hold Saberi in prison very long. So last week, maybe caught off-guard by the rising protest around the world, authorities unholstered the big one: spying.

Cue McCarthy with beard and turban, and you get the idea (though McCarthy didn't do all his drinking behind closed doors). As Reporters Without Borders notes, Ayatollah Khamenei, who dubs himself the Supreme Leader, "ordered a crackdown on independent newspapers and journalists in 2000 for 'collaborating and for being the domestic centre of enemy activity.' Most of the journalists arrested and jailed in Iran are charged with spying. Among the journalists currently held on this charge are Adnan Hassanpour, Mohammad Hassin Falahieh Zadeh and Mohammad Sadegh Kabodvand."

The regime did not have the temerity of arresting an American, however. The fact that it did so the month of Barack Obama's inauguration suggests that the more hirsutely reactionary wing of the regime are using Saberi to make a statement. She's a pawn in the reactionaries' increasing fears that the reformist candidate for president in next June's election, Mirhossein Mousavi, may well beat Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. For his part, Ahmadinejad's campaign, bedraggled by the sorry state of the economy after five years of mismanagement (think Bush in cheap suits), needs a whipping post. Unfortunately for Saberi, she may be it.

For the record, here are the first few paragraphs from Saberi's last bylined piece for Inter Press Services, which may have caught Iranian authorities' ire. The piece was headlined: "Iran has power over Shia Militia, Iraq leader says."

Iraq's deputy prime minister has credited Tehran with helping curb the activities of a radical Shia Muslim militia, and he is also hoping Iran will do more to help stabilize its western neighbor.

"There is no doubt the Iranians have recently applied influence and leverage over Jaish al-Mahdi to contain and limit its operations inside Iraq," Barham Salih said. "This is a welcome sign. But I'll be very frank with you: The very fact that Iran can turn on and off the activities of Jaish al-Mahdi is one of concern to me as an Iraqi official."

Washington has long accused Tehran of training, arming and funding Shia extremist groups in Iraq -- groups such as the Mehdi Army militia run by cleric Muqtada al Sadr. U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates accused Iran of interference on Saturday and called Tehran's foreign policies a threat to the United States and to the Middle East.

Gates' comments, however, followed those of some U.S. officials who said in recent weeks that Iran appears to have halted the flow of arms across its border with its western neighbor, Iraq.

Nothing to send someone to jail over, but enough, in the calculus of Iranian insecurities, to send turbans a-twirling.

If only there was a little more twirling on this side of the world. It isn't enough for Hillary Clinton to be merely "deeply concerned" and to pledge to "follow this very closely," as if Saberi's case was a reality show on cable. It isn't even enough for Clinton alone (whose guardedness on the matter is itself an outrage, and who's proving why she's not quite fit for the job) to be intervening--if you can even call it that. (You can't: being "concerned" is not intervening.)

Why isn't Barack Obama intervening? The longer his administration stays neutral, the more it implicitly concedes the game to Iran. And the more the administration turns Roxana Saberi into a pawn of its own in its own maneuvers with the ayatollahs.

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Comments

April 15, 2009 at 12:46 pm
(1) doc says:

Plenty of people enter the U.S. without proper credentials, purchase illegal substances and are then put in jails, detained indefinitely without trial, occasionally tortured, etc. Especially if they are from Iran or Cuba. At current count I think it’s over 10000 people in jails on similar charges in the U.S. I’m not sure what the big difference is here. We set a pretty low bar for human rights, other countries follow our example. Not saying Iran is right, but just saying it should come as no surprise given how we behave.

I think the only reason it’s news is because she’s pretty. Her book deal will be worth millions. All about being in the right place at the right time.

April 15, 2009 at 2:43 pm
(2) Pierre says:

Doc, I don’t dispute the point about American excesses against immigrants (Human Rights Watch released a report on that very subject today: astounding numbers adding up to 1 million deportations in 10 years emanating from blatant double-jeopardy abuses, which are unconstitutional; see the report here.

But the linkage with Saberi’s case is I think harsh and misplaced, in the sense that one shouldn’t in the least ever justify an obvious injustice by making it relative to another. Justice’s standard isn’t measurable against injustice. It’s its own standard, otherwise the notion of justice would be meaningless. And the reference to Saberi’s case being newsworthy because she’s pretty is just plain nuts. An American reporter is in an Iranian dungeon for no reason whatever. Right now, that’s the issue, and Saberi’s release the priority.

If she gets a book deal out of this, more power to her: anyone subjected to these horrors deserves every bit of compensation. The Iranian government certainly won’t be doing the compensating. Why shouldn’t Random House?

April 16, 2009 at 9:49 am
(3) doc says:

Again… I agree that justice has no comparison. In my initial comment I put “not saying Iran is right”. It’s not. What Iran does is horrible. But the “news” doesn’t report things because they are unjust…. they report things based on how pretty and how western the prisoner is, whether they have an accent and whether they have a beard.

Yunis Khatayer Abbas – journalist held by the U.S. in Abu Ghraib (no beard, got a documentary)

Jawed Ahmad – journalst held in military custody at the detention
facility at the United States Air Base in Bagram

Sami Mohy El Din Muhammed Al Hajj – Sudanese journalist working for Al
Jazeera held in Guantanamo without trial for years (no beard, mentioned by bbc)

Abdul Rahim Muslimdost and Badr ul Zaman Badr – worked as journalists
in Pakistan – held in Guantanamo for many years without trial (bearded… ignored)

April 18, 2009 at 11:09 am
(4) duguyisheng says:

These is no way you can compare human rights and freedoms in the US with countries like Iran and Cuba. We aren’t perfect by any means but we aren’t in the same ballpark with those countries. Try publishing a comment like the one doc made in Iran and see how fast you are harassed. Openly criticize the theocracy and see how fast you land in jail. Try living there.

April 18, 2009 at 1:22 pm
(5) Rob says:

Was her trial any more of a sham than the military tribunals for the Guantanimo detainees that where held without charge, tortured and never given a chance to question their detainment. I think under US standards she was treated more than fair.

April 18, 2009 at 1:36 pm
(6) Pierre says:

Excellent point Rob; worth a follow-up.

April 18, 2009 at 5:47 pm
(7) Jimbo says:

How about we exchange her for George Bush?

April 19, 2009 at 3:29 am
(8) PolakMaly says:

What can I say. Another sad story. Of course, Im sure shes not spending time shackled in a tiny cell, sexually molested, sprayed with insects, waterboarded, etc From a bit of research on this unfortunate young lady, there is a more than 50% probability that she did some work with the us gov. Pretty dumb after all her studies and knowing how the Iran regime operates she confessed. Of course, after Israel finally nukes Iran and starves the Palestinian people to death, she could be the next western Iranian leader puppet.

If we truly stand up for truth, fairness, liberty, justice, etc lets abolish all governments, central banks, interest rates, the military-industrial complex, the police state and free all the spies, all the journalists, and all the other victims of government coercion and manipulation all over the world. Just to point out the us has the highest prison and conviction sanctioned population in the world. Between 3 to 5 times the number in Iran. What is all this senseless incarceration, war, carnage, and bloodshed about?

In the end, Im sure Iran well show its humble face. Miss. Saberi will be much more comfortable than those in us prisons, better treated, and will eventually, hopefully fairly soon, be released. I just hope once this happens, Miss. Saberi is honest about her treatment and instead of playing espionage games focuses not just on Iran, but dedicates her life and the opportunities that she has been given to exposing the real problems plaguing and oppressing civilization. Godspeed her and and everyone’s release!

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