U.S. journalist held in Iran without charge

New York, March 2, 2009–The Committee to Protect Journalists called on the Iranian government today to explain why it has held American freelance journalist Roxana Saberi for over a month without revealing her location or charging her with a crime. 

Saberi, 31, was detained in late January and has not been heard from since, except when she placed a two-minute call to her father from an unknown location on February 10 to tell him that she had been arrested for buying wine, her father, Reza Saberi, told CPJ from his home in North Dakota. Saberi called back 10 minutes later, urging her father not to contact the press, adding that she would be released within days, according to her father and numerous news reports. Her father did not contact the press until Saturday.

“We are extremely concerned about the safety of Roxana Saberi,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Mohamed Abdel Dayem. “She has been held for more than a month without charge, which is especially alarming in light of Iran’s record of dismal treatment of detained journalists. We call on the Iranian authorities to disclose her location, provide access to an attorney, and explain why she is being detained. Otherwise, she should be released immediately.”

In July 2003, Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi died in custody, after being detained for three weeks in connection with pictures she had taken during a student protest in Tehran.

Saberi’s family and literary agent told CPJ that they believe that the wine merely provided a pretext for detaining the journalist. Press freedom advocates inside Iran echoed that sentiment. People found in possession of alcohol in Iran are usually released within a few days, they said. While the possession or consumption of alcohol is illegal in Iran, it remains widely available on the black market.

Although Tehran refused to confirm or deny that Saberi was being held, Hassan Ghashghavi, spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, today implicitly acknowledged that Saberi was in custody, saying that her activities in Iran since 2006 (when her press credentials were revoked) have been “illegal” and “unauthorized,” adding that the case was being handled by the Ministry of Justice, according to multiple international news sources. According to Agence France-Presse, the Iranian judiciary will release more information about the case on Tuesday.

Saberi, who has been living in Iran for six years, filed reports for NPR, Fox News, the BBC, and other international news outlets before her press credentials were revoked in 2006 by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which accredits reporters working for foreign news organizations. According to NPR, Saberi continued to file short news items with government permission despite the revocation. Since 2006, Saberi had been primarily involved in writing a book and pursuing a graduate education in Iran, the journalist’s literary agent, Diana Finch, told CPJ.

Iran’s press freedom record is one of the poorest in the region. At least five Iranian editors and writers, not including Saberi, are currently imprisoned. Detained journalists in Iran are routinely held in undisclosed locations, denied due process, access to attorneys, and timely medical treatment.