Saturday, April 18, 2009

Minneapolis Star-Tribune: Editorial: Step up push for Saberi's release

Editorial: Step up push for Saberi's release

Senior statesman could help secure journalist's freedom.

The news about North Dakota journalist Roxana Saberi is increasingly grim. First arrested in Iran, ostensibly for buying wine, the 31-year-old journalist is now held in a notorious Iranian prison on espionage charges. Her quickie trial on Monday played out behind closed doors. A military tribunal is now secretly weighing her fate.

Still, there's reason to be optimistic about the scholar/beauty queen's prospects. Experts point out that others jailed in Iran under similar circumstances were released relatively quickly. And while Iran remains a nation of hardline theology, it is increasingly aware of its worldwide reputation and diplomacy's opportunities. There are more advantages than disadvantages for this status-conscious nation to let Saberi go. The thousands of supporters who have rallied on Facebook and elsewhere shouldn't lose hope because there's more work to do on her behalf.

Although the espionage charge may give some pause, here's some perspective. State Department officials, as well as North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad and U.S. Rep. Earl Pomeroy, have bluntly dismissed the allegations. Iran has offered up zero evidence, and the fact that her trial was done in a day suggests to University of Minnesota expert William Beeman that officials didn't have much on her.

Beeman, chair of the Department of Anthropology, is an author and linguist who has worked in Iran for the past 30 years. He believes there's strong precedent for Saberi's release. In 2006 and 2007, several scholars and journalists with dual Iranian-American citizenship like Saberi's were imprisoned in Iran on antigovernment activity charges. Three were released after several months. Beeman said Saberi's situation seems similar, and he's hopeful that Iranians will realize that they've made a point with her arrest -- that foreigners must respect their laws -- and then let her go.

Iran has also previously capitalized on its ability to generate international goodwill by releasing high-profile prisoners. In spring 2007, it allowed 15 British soldiers and marines to return home as an "Easter present" to the British people. Now's an excellent time for a similar gesture. Clemency for Saberi would only improve Iran's global stature. It would also be a welcome gesture to a powerful, popular new American president as both nations move toward more rationale relations.

Thanks to the Internet, this newspaper is read far beyond Minnesota. Comments from Iranian U.N. ministry officials suggest they've seen previous Saberi editorials. It bears repeating their message: The push for Saberi's release will continue. The Council on Foreign Relations this week offered up an excellent idea: enlisting a senior statesman whom Iranians would respect. CFR Iranian expert Elliot Abrams said Minnesota is home to just such a world figure. His name? Walter Mondale.

Mondale was traveling this week and couldn't be reached. But organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists would do well to ask for his help. Every avenue that can help bring Saberi home must be explored.



"My feeling is that she will be released and I hope I'm right. I think there's been enough international attention to this; it gives the Iranians a chance to show that they are civilized and extend clemency to people.''

William Beeman, chair of the University of Minnesota Department of Anthropology and author of "'The Great Satan' vs. the 'Mad Mullahs': How the U.S. and Iran Demonize Each Other.''

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