A joyful Roxana Saberi on Tuesday thanked those who helped win her release after four months in a Tehran prison. Her lawyer revealed that the American journalist was convicted of spying for the U.S. in part because she had a copy of a confidential Iranian report on the U.S. war in Iraq.
Saberi, who holds American and Iranian citizenship, had copied the report "out of curiosity" while she worked as a freelance translator for a powerful body connected to Iran's ruling clerics, said the lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht.
It turned into a key part of the prosecution's case against her during her secret, closed-door trial in mid-April before an Iranian security court, Nikbakht said. Prosecutors also cited a trip to Israel that Saberi made in 2006, he said. Iran bars its citizens from visiting Israel, its top regional nemesis.
Speaking to reporters in Tehran for the first time since her release Monday, a smiling Saberi said she did not have any specific plans but wanted to spend time with her family. She looked thin but energetic, dressed in a bright blue headscarf, black pants and a black dress.
'Happy to be free'
"I'm of course very happy to be free and to be with my parents again, and I want to thank all the people all over the world — which I'm just finding out about really — who whether they knew me or not helped me and my family during this period," she said in brief remarks outside her home in north Tehran.
"I don't have any specific plans for the moment, I just want to be with my parents, and my friends and to relax," the 32-year-old said.
Her father said Saberi was catching up on news stories on her detention on the Web as the family prepared to return with her to the United States in the coming days.
Saberi's original trial was a swift, single session that her father said lasted only 15 minutes. She didn't have a chance to speak in that trial, and she was sentenced to eight years in prison — drawing an outcry from Washington.
But she spoke in an appeals court Sunday, explaining her side to the judges, Nikbakht said. Saberi admitted that she copied the document two years ago but said she didn't pass it on to the Americans as prosecutors claimed. She apologized, saying it had been a mistake to take the report, Nikbakht said.
At the time, Saberi was doing occasional translations for the Web site of the Expediency Council, which is made up of clerics who mediate between the legislature, presidency and Iran's clerical leadership over constitutional disputes, the lawyer said. Nikbakht gave no details on what was in the document because it remains confidential.
Saberi also told the appeals court that she had engaged in no activities against Iran during her visit to Israel, he said.
The court accepted her explanation and reduced her sentence to a suspended two-year sentence, prompting her freeing on Monday. Another of Saberi's lawyers, Abdolsamad Khorramshahi, said a letter from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the court urging it to give Saberi's case a complete review helped bring the sentence reduction.
Ahmadinejad's letter and the success of the appeal was a sign of the intense political pressure swirling around Saberi's case. Her Jan. 31 arrest came at a time when President Barack Obama was launching his outreach to Tehran, aiming to ease years of tensions between the two adversaries. Many in Iran and the U.S. speculated that Saberi's arrest was an attempt by hard-liners within the regime to scuttle any dialogue.
But in the face of criticism from Washington, Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials appeared to back down, issuing assurances Saberi would get a proper appear. The release could also help Ahmadinejad 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.
'Not tortured at all'
Saberi's Iranian-born father Reza Saberi said his daughter "was not tortured at all" while in custody but that she made incriminating statements about herself under pressure. He said his daughter initially pleaded guilty to the charges under pressure but retracted her statements later and the appeals court accepted that.
He told NPR that there was "a lot of psychological pressure ... just to be there for her to be confined in one room and not to be able to do any of the activities that she used to do, it was so hard for her."
He said the first thing his daughter wanted when she got home after her release was "to rest a little bit and to speak to some of her friends here."
"She has lost a lot of weight," he told reporters. His daughter held a hunger strike during her detention, stopping after two weeks when her parents, visiting her in prison, asked her to end it. Now "she is eating well. She is recovering," her father said.
Saberi's father and her mother Akiko, who is of Japanese origin, came to Iran after her detention to try to win her release. Reza Saberi said the family was making plans to return home to the United States but probably would not be ready to leave on Tuesday or Wednesday. The family lives in Fargo, North Dakota, where Roxana was raised and in 1997 was crowned Miss North Dakota.