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Trying to explain the Saberi case

By Jon Leyne
BBC News, Tehran

Roxana Saberi: 'I need some more time to think about what happened to me'

It all came down in the end to a piece of paper.

Two years ago, the young Iranian-American Roxana Saberi did some translation work for the Expediency Council, a part of the Iranian government.

She made a copy of a classified document about the US-led invasion of Iraq.

Two years later that would lead to her being arrested, held for three-and-a-half months in Evin prison, charged with spying, and sentenced to eight-year jail term.

According to her lawyers, at her appeal hearing last week, Ms Saberi admitted to possession of the document, but denied passing it to a "hostile power".

The court accepted her argument, and reduced her sentence from eight years to a two-year suspended term, which left her free to leave the country.

For anyone who knows Roxana Saberi, the idea that she was a spy was faintly ridiculous. And working as a journalist without a press card would be the worst possible cover.

Ahmadinejad's letter

The case grabbed headlines around the world. Her father, Reza Saberi, said she became a symbol for press freedom.

But it was also the sight of the fragile-looking former beauty queen, against the might of the Islamic Republic. Who could fail to be moved?

The Iranian authorities do have good reason to fear foreign subversion

Her lawyers believe a letter from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, calling for her to be given her full legal rights, helped to secure her freedom.

Though he would fiercely deny it, perhaps Mr Ahmadinejad was sensitive to global public opinion.

Perhaps, despite much blustery rhetoric, he really is interested in dialogue with US President Barack Obama, and realised what a serious obstacle this case might become.

But, again according to Ms Saberi's lawyers, intelligence and security officials argued to the end of her five-hour appeal hearing on Sunday against letting her go.

They were deeply reluctant to admit that their prize catch was really just an innocent goldfish that had swum into their nets.

Eventually the Iranian judges did accept that Ms Saberi was not a spy.

But it is also true that the Iranian authorities do have good reason to fear foreign subversion.

'One revolution enough'

Etched deeply in the Iranian psyche is the 1953 CIA and British-backed coup, in which the elected government of Mohammad Mossadeq was ousted.

More recently, in a typically heavy-handed and counterproductive move, President George W Bush made available tens of millions of dollars to pro-democracy groups here.

According to American newspaper reports, more money has been funnelled secretly to try to destabilise Iran, or at least to maintain a heightened level of surveillance.

The Iranian government fears - and the neo-cons in Washington hope for - a "velvet revolution" in Iran, similar to those that installed pro-Western governments in Ukraine and Georgia.

There are many, many people here deeply frustrated with their government

You do not have to be in Iran for long to realise: it is not about to happen.

Even the most westernised, most sophisticated citizens of smart north Tehran, do not want another revolution.

One is enough for anyone's lifetime, they tell you.

But the Iranian government's fears are quite telling. They know you cannot have a velvet revolution without a large number of discontented people.

And there are many, many people here deeply frustrated with their government.

You can tell that by the stream of educated young people leaving, or eager to leave, for Germany, the United States, Britain or Canada.

They want a government that spends more time trying to sort out the economy, the traffic, the pollution, and spends less time raking over old grievances and chanting "Death to America".

Warning to journalists?

Those in positions of power in Iran must understand all of this.

But they see the world through a different lens. Their filter of paranoia interprets many apparently innocuous events as plots against them.

With some justice, perhaps. But keeping that sense of siege going, deliberately or otherwise, does not do any harm for their survival either.

Hence, one former beauty queen, photocopying one piece of paper, can be interpreted as part of a wider plot to undermine the Islamic Republic.

As so often in Iran, there are many more strands to the story, much we will never know.

Amnesty International protest agaisnt the execution of Delara Delabi outside the Iranian embassy in west London, on April 20, 2009
The case of Delara Delabi did not generate the same level of reaction

Perhaps the original intention in arresting Ms Saberi was to send a warning to journalists in Iran, foreign and domestic.

There is no doubt that a deep sensitivity exists here about foreign press coverage of Iran.

Every day it is picked over in detail on state TV and the newspapers.

I know my reports are pored over for any factual inaccuracies, or any suggestion of lack of respect towards Iran or its leaders.

Surely the authorities never anticipated the strength of foreign outrage over the case.

After all, the imprisonment of two distinguished Aids doctors, the Alaei brothers, hardly stirred more than a press release from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

There was not even the same level of reaction for the execution of Delara Darabi.

The 23-year-old woman was hanged for a crime allegedly committed while she was still a juvenile, while her appeal was still pending.

Her parents were not even allowed to visit her before she went to the gallows.

The other suspicion is that Roxana Saberi became a political pawn: her case was used by those trying to block any possible reconciliation between Iran and the United States.

Again, we shall never know.

We do know that Roxana is now safe and free. Her friends around the world are delighted.

Her fellow journalists in Iran are wondering who will be next.



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