(New York) - Iranian officials are unlawfully detaining the Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi by holding her without charge, Human Rights Watch said today. Saberi has been in detention without charge since January 30, 2009, in the political prisoners' section of Tehran's Evin prison. Human Rights Watch called on the Iranian authorities to immediately release the journalist they promised to free, or immediately bring her before a judge to review her detention in a public hearing, with the power to order her release.
Saberi, a 31-year-old journalist whose work was broadcast for networks including NPR, BBC, and FOX, was the Tehran bureau chief for Feature Story News (FSN) when she was detained in January. Her father, Reza Saberi, says that authorities alleged that she had purchased wine, against the law in Iran, a year ago. However, after six weeks of detention, she has not been charged with any crime.
"The constitution of Iran guarantees free speech, yet the government continues to detain journalists without charge for doing their jobs," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "In fact, Iran continues to be one of the biggest jailers of journalists worldwide."
Saberi, a dual Iranian-American citizen whose father is Iranian and mother is Japanese, has lived in Iran for the past six years. Her family said she was also pursuing a master's degree at the University of Public Relations (daneshkadehyeh ravabeteh omoomi), an English-language university in Tehran. She is the latest in a series of people with dual American and Iranian citizenship detained while visiting or working in Iran.
Iran is violating its own laws and international laws to which it is a signatory by detaining Saberi without charge, and - until the case received international attention - without access to a lawyer or her family, Human Rights Watch said.
Saberi was in daily contact with her family in Fargo, North Dakota, until an email and phone call on January 31 went unanswered. On February 10, her father said, Saberi called her parents at about 3 a.m. Fargo time, speaking "under stress and tense" for less than two minutes. She told him, in English, that Iranian authorities had detained her for purchasing alcohol, then abruptly hung up. She then called back two minutes later and pleaded with her parents not to take any action because prison officials had told her they would release her in a few days.
"Then we waited to see if we would hear anything, and we didn't," her father told Human Rights Watch. "At the end of February, we decided that we had waited enough, so we talked to NPR and from then it became public."
On March 3, Ali Reza Jamshidi, a spokesperson for Iran's Judiciary, confirmed Saberi's detention, stating that, "The arrest took place on a writ issued by the Revolutionary Court." Jamshidi further stated that authorities had detained Saberi because of her unspecified "illegal activities" and would release her within a few days, but she remains in detention. The Saberi family then contacted a lawyer, Samad Khorramshahi, who agreed to represent her.
Khorramshahi had his first opportunity to meet Saberi on March 8, over six weeks after her arrest, at a visit arranged at a courthouse in Tehran. Reza Saberi said the lawyer reported that his daughter "appeared depressed" but was heartened to discover that her family was making efforts toward her release and that her situation had received international attention. On March 10, another visit was arranged for Khorramshahi, this time at Evin prison itself. Her father said that was the first time that the lawyer had concrete confirmation that they were indeed holding Saberi in Section 209, the political prisoners' section. It appeared to the lawyer that she was being held in a cell with several other female political prisoners.
In the early hours of March 9, prison officials allowed Saberi her second brief supervised call to her family in North Dakota. Saberi stated that her situation was "psychologically challenging" but that physically she was fine, Reza Saberi told Human Rights Watch.
On March 10, representatives from the BBC, FOX, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and FSN wrote a letter on Saberi's behalf, urging that Iran provide access to Saberi.
The Iranian code of criminal procedure requires the government to inform individuals of the charges against them within 24 hours of their arrest and to provide access to a lawyer. Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iran ratified in 1975, says that no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention. It goes on to require that anyone arrested shall be informed "promptly" of any charges against them, and shall be brought promptly before a judge. Anyone unlawfully arrested or detained should have an enforceable right to compensation.
Saberi's case is one of several over the past few years involving Iranian-American dual nationals. In 2007, security forces detained three scholars with dual citizenship for months before freeing them. The detentions are part of a broad crackdown against journalists, writers, scholars and activists by Iranian intelligence officials based in the country's Information Ministry. The government also has increasingly brought security charges based merely on an individual's connections to foreign institutions, persons, or sources of funding, alleging that they undermine national security.
Human Rights Watch has documented extensive patterns of forced confessions, arbitrary detentions, and prison torture against opposition journalists, political activists, and anyone perceived as a critic (http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2008/01/06/you-can-detain-anyone-anything-0 ).