An American journalist jailed for four months in Iran was freed Monday and reunited with her parents after an appeals court suspended her eight-year prison sentence on charges of spying for the U.S. Her parents said they would bring her home to the U.S. within days.
The release of Roxana Saberi, a 32-year-old dual Iranian-American citizen, clears a major snag in President Barack Obama's efforts to engage Iran in a dialogue after decades of shunning the country. Washington had called the charges against Saberi baseless and repeatedly demanded her release.
Hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could also win some domestic political points a month before he faces a re-election challenge from reformers who seek to ease Iran's bitter rivalry with the United States.
Saberi's Iranian-born father, Reza Saberi, wiped away tears, then flashed a broad smile as he and his wife, Akiko, arrived at Tehran's Evin prison — notorious for holding political prisoners — to meet their daughter. Akiko Saberi, who is of Japanese origin, wore a flowered headscarf.
The younger Saberi, who was taken out of Evin through a back door away from journalists, was not seen after her release. She was staying with her parents at a friend's home, apparently to avoid publicity before leaving Iran.
Saberi's arrest in late January, followed by a secretive, one-day trial and a heavy prison sentence, prompted sharp U.S. criticism. Soon after, Ahmadinejad and other officials appeared to back off, suggesting the sentence could be reversed.
On Monday, an appeals court reduced her jail term to a two-year suspended sentence, Iran's judiciary spokesman, Ali Reza Jamshidi, told reporters. Jamshidi said she was free to leave Iran.
"I'm very happy that she is free. Roxana is in good condition," Reza Saberi said after her release.
Surprise at sudden release
"We had expected her release but not so soon. She will be preparing to leave (Iran) tomorrow or the day after tomorrow," he told reporters at his house in Tehran.
He said Saberi was staying at a friend's house, where her parents would join her.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton welcomed the release.
"Obviously, we continue to take issue with the charges against her and the verdicts rendered, but we are very heartened that she has been released, and wish her and her family all of the very best," Clinton said in a statement to reporters at the State Department.
The Saberi family lives in Fargo, N.D., and her parents have been in Iran for several weeks seeking their daughter's freedom. At one point, the younger Saberi held a two week hunger strike protesting her jailing, but ended it after two weeks for health reasons.
The elder Saberis were reunited with their daughter at Tehran's Evin prison, where Roxana was held since her arrest. Outside the prison, Saberi's mother was smiling, while her father appeared overcome by emotion. They were later whisked away outside a back door, out of sight of journalists.
"She was reunited with her father and mother. They left for their house," her lawyer Saleh Nikbakht told The Associated Press.
Court cites 'Islamic mercy'
The judiciary spokesman, Jamshidi, said the appeals court reduced her sentence as a gesture of "Islamic mercy" because she had cooperated with authorities and had expressed regret.
During the two-year suspended sentence she will barred from practicing journalism in Iran and "if she commits a similar crime, the 2-year jail term will be enforced against her," he said.
Saberi, who grew up in Fargo, moved to Iran six years ago and had worked as a freelance journalist for several organizations including National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corp.
When she was first arrested, authorities accused Saberi of working without proper journalism credentials. But when she was put on trial in mid-April by a closed-door security court, she was convicted on much harsher charges of spying for the United States. She was jailed in Evin prison, where many political prisoners are held.
On Sunday, a court heard an appeal of Saberi's conviction and sentence and her lawyers emerged saying they were able to defend her and were optimistic her sentence would be reduced.
The United States, several European countries and human rights groups had been advocating for Saberi's release.
"They (Iranian officials) surely must have felt the weight of international pressure," U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota told the AP after hearing she would be released.