Freedom for Roxana Saberi!
John Cookson on Roxana Saberi
11 May 09

We always knew the charges against Roxana Saberi were trumped up, and that she would be freed eventually — but when the news flashed from Tehran on Monday morning that she was being released, my feelings of joy and utter relief were overwhelming.

For weeks now I have had a vision of my friend Roxana — who was always something of a free spirit — being cooped up like a caged bird in Evin: Iran’s most infamous jail.

Now at last she can taste freedom for the first time since February. Fantastic!

I first met Roxana Saberi in the summer of 2005 when we were both working in the Baghdad bureau of Fox News. I was a correspondent and she was one of a team of energetic producers. Roxana was a typical all-American girl: driven, confident, smiley, utterly charming and a fitness fanatic who would astonish us all by running round the galleried hotel floors to stay in shape even in 45C heat!

Baghdad was extremely violent in those days with almost daily bombings in the street outside. I remember one week when the hotel took four direct hits from Katyusha rockets, but Roxana always stayed calm and cheerful, even though she must have been terrified.

Roxana, 31, from Fargo, North Dakota, was very ambitious and after Baghdad she told me she thought Teheran was the place to make a name for herself in journalism , which in the circumstances is ironic.

I begged her to reconsider, having worked there myself and knowing what difficulties Western journalists face just doing their job in Iran. For a woman it would have been doubly difficult.

She is a talented and dedicated journalist and soon started picking up work as a freelance, working for the BBC, Fox News and America’s National Public Radio.

Then in February this year came the horrifying news she had been arrested and initially charged with overstaying her visa.

Then weeks later we heard she’d been charged with spying an offence which can carry the death penalty in Iran. In a revolutionary court trial, held behind closed doors, she was found guilty and sentenced to eight years in prison. It was like a hammer blow to friends and amily and, f course, utterly devastating for her.

Her old alma mata North Western University and National Public Radio started to a campaign to get her released because her family and friends knew she was no spy. Media organsiations all over the world helped to highlight the case, including Britain’s National Union of Journalists, to whom I say many thanks.

Getting the right tone for a campaign was tricky. Cause too much fuss and the Iranians would become upset and dig their heels in. Make no noise at all and she would rot away in jail.

It also soon became clear Roxana was a political pawn in the high stakes game being played between Iran and the US over Teheran’s quest for nuclear power. An American journalist in jail held on the whim of the Iranian regime was a strong bargaining chip in this ongoing saga.

There was another issue too: Iran’s presidential election race is in June, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could perhaps score points on the international stage by demonstrating his sense of justice. Was that what he was doing when he personally intervened in this case earlier this month?

By the time Roxana’s appeal was heard last Sunday the US President Barak Obama had also called for her to be freed.

As we celebrate Roxana’s release I would ask readers to spare a thought for countless innocent prisoners in jail in Iran who will not be freed and including those who face execution. Remember too, Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi, who died in hospital in Tehran on 10 July 2003 after falling into a coma, having received head injuries during more than three days of interrogation.

Roxana’s ordeal will be over when she leaves Iran. Many others must stay behind bars and face Iran’s version of justice.

This is a guest post by John Cookson
John Cookson was a senior correspondent at Sky News from 1989 to 1999, and later worked with Fox News and Al Jazeera. He is now senior features producer at Euronews in Lyon France, and is working on Iran: the perfect storm — a book about the Islamic Republic’s quest for nukes.