CPJ background paper describes legal issues in Saberi case

New York, May 9, 2009–The Committee to Protect Journalists is issuing a background paper today that describes the legal issues surrounding the appeal of journalist Roxana Saberi, who is imprisoned in Iran on espionage charges. The appeal is expected to be heard as early as Sunday.

“We are gravely concerned by the lack of transparency and due process in the prosecution of journalist Roxana Saberi. Her appeal is an opportunity for the Iranian judiciary to conduct a truly independent and impartial review of the case,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “We will be monitoring legal developments closely at this crucial juncture, and we look forward to Roxana Saberi‘s prompt release.”


Committee to Protect Journalists

Backgrounder on the Roxana Saberi Appeal

May 8, 2009

The Committee to Protect Journalists is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to the defense of press freedom worldwide. CPJ works in every region of the world to defend journalists against physical attack, imprisonment, censorship and other threats to free expression.

CPJ provides this backgrounder for persons interested in the case of jailed journalist Roxana Saberi. On April 18, 2009, Iran‘s Revolutionary Court announced that it had sentenced Ms. Saberi to eight years in prison for unspecified acts of espionage. Ms. Saberi today remains in Tehran‘s Evin Prison, where she recently ended a hunger strike. We understand that Ms. Saberi’s appeal will be heard by an Iranian court as early as Sunday, May 10.

1. What should observers expect to happen in Ms. Saberi‘s appeal?

  • Iran has promised a legitimate and independent appellate process with third-party monitoring. Observers should watch closely for signs of whether the promise is being kept.
  • On May 5, 2009, Iranian judiciary spokesman Ali Reza Jamshidi announced that Ms. Saberi’s appeal would be heard by Branch 14 of the Tehran Appeals Court. He stated that the appeal would be closed to the public and the press, but that representatives of the Iranian Bar Association, the Intelligence Ministry and the prosecutor’s office would be present.
  • Iran‘s Attorney General has said that the Appeals Court has the power to change Ms. Saberi‘s sentence. Iran officially respects the separation of powers between the court system and the executive. The head of Iran’s judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi, has called for Ms. Saberi‘s appeal to be conducted in a “careful, quick and fair” manner. It appears that a decision could be handed down quickly.

2.  Is Roxana Saberi a legitimate journalist?

  • All indications are that Roxana Saberi is indeed a legitimate, professional working journalist.
  • She holds master’s degrees in broadcast journalism from Northwestern University in the United States and in international relations from Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.
  • In 2003, Ms. Saberi (who holds dual Iranian and United States citizenship) moved to Iran to run a fully accredited bureau for Feature Story News, a major independent broadcast news agency. Ms. Saberi then worked in Iran as a freelance reporter. Her stories have been carried by the BBC, NPR, ABC Radio, Fox News and other media organizations.
  • In 2006, Ms. Saberi‘s press credentials were revoked by the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which accredits foreign journalists working in the country. We are not aware of any explanation for this revocation being offered by the Ministry. According to her parents, Ms. Saberi remained in Iran after the revocation to study for a master’s degree at a university in Tehran and to write a book on Iranian politics and culture. According to NPR, Saberi continued to file reports from Iran with the government’s informal permission.

3. Has any evidence been made public to support the espionage charges against Ms. Saberi?


  • No. On the contrary, the Saberi case has been characterized by a complete lack of transparency. International observers have not seen any evidence in the case, much less any credible evidence of espionage.
  • On April 8, 2009, Sohrab Heydarifard, the judge overseeing Ms. Saberi‘s case, told Iranian state television that Ms. Saberi would be tried for engaging in espionage while holding herself out as a reporter. He gave no details of the charges.
  • Also on April 8, Hassan Haddad, a deputy chief prosecutor, announced that the case had been investigated by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security and that Ms. Saberi had confessed. Mr. Haddad gave no details. Ms. Saberi‘s lawyer, Abdolsamad Khorramshahi, informed the press that he too had been given no details of the government’s allegations or of the alleged confession.
  • Six days later, on April 14, 2009, Ms. Saberi was tried before Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran, which hears state security cases. The trial took place in a single day, behind closed doors. Although Ms. Saberi‘s lawyer was permitted to attend, his ability to speak to the press has since been restricted.
  •  At the request of the Saberi family, a group of human rights lawyers led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi tried to contact Ms. Saberi in prison so she could authorize them to assist with her appeal. The authorities refused to grant these lawyers access. Lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani was quoted as saying: “It’s clear they are afraid that we will make details of the charges public. There must be serious irregularities in her file.”

4. With what exactly has Ms. Saberi been charged?


  • To our knowledge, the government has not specified the provisions of the criminal code under which Ms. Saberi has been convicted.
  • When she was first allowed to call her father, Ms. Saberi told him that she had been arrested for buying a bottle of wine. Buying wine is a crime in Iran, but it is usually punished with a fine.
  • Government spokesmen initially were silent as to the reason for Ms. Saberi‘s detention. The government later announced that she was being held for reporting without proper accreditation, but provided no details of the charges.
  • Speaking to the Iranian press on April 8, 2009, Mr. Haddad, the deputy chief prosecutor, accused Ms. Saberi of engaging in espionage under the guise of journalism. As best we can tell, this is an entirely different alleged offense than the wine purchase. Ms. Saberi‘s lawyer then told the press that Ms. Saberi had been informed of the charges against her but that he had not been given details of the government’s allegations.

5.   How does the Saberi case compare to previous charges of espionage against journalists?


  • Repressive regimes historically have often used charges of espionage to intimidate or silence journalists. The reasons for this have been well explained by Aidan White, General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists: “It is easy to accuse journalists of spying. They ask difficult questions, they gather a great deal of information–much of it about the state–and they have to maintain confidentiality.”  The consistent pattern is that these charges are not ultimately substantiated.
  • Cases of journalists detained in Iran include Zahra Kazemi, Ali Farrabakhsh and Mohammad Hossein Fallahiyazadeh, who were arrested and accused of espionage for performing their work. The detention of Nguyen Vu Binh in Vietnam, Anne Boher in Côte d’Ivoire, Paul Salopek in Sudan, and Nicholas Daniloff in the former Soviet Union are other examples of meritless espionage cases brought against journalists by regimes that have a generally troubling record with respect to freedom of the press.
  • Publicly available information about Ms. Saberi‘s case seems to closely match the historical pattern: a government with a history of doubtful regard for press freedom, a journalist who has previously run afoul of that government, and an espionage charge without visible evidentiary support. CPJ is hopeful that the appellate court will apply truly independent and searching scrutiny to the record of the case, and not let the Saberi case stand as a further example of such baseless prosecution.

6.   Does international law have any role in the case?


  • Yes. Iran has committed itself to follow sources of international law that guarantee freedom of speech and due process.
  • Iran is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and has adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), both of which commit Iran to protect the basic human rights of all persons on its territory and under its jurisdiction. Iran is also bound by similar obligations in its bilateral treaty with the United States, the 1955 Treaty of Amity, Economic Relations, and Consular Rights.
  • These international instruments protect the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and opinion. They also guarantee freedom from arbitrary detention, by providing certain protections to the detainee. These include the right to be promptly informed of charges, the right to an adequate opportunity to prepare and present a defense, and the right to contest her detention. Moreover, the UDHR, ICCPR and Treaty of Amity also guarantee detainees a fair and public trial.
  • The limited information available about Ms. Saberi‘s case raises grave questions as to whether Iran‘s actions are consistent with its obligations under international law. For much of her detention it appears she was held incommunicado, and then allowed only limited contact with her family and with counsel. It appears that Ms. Saberi was not informed of the final charges against her until shortly before her trial, likely rendering it difficult if not impossible for her to mount an effective defense. To our knowledge she was not given the opportunity to contest her detention. Iran has offered varying reasons for detaining Ms. Saberi; the ultimate charge, espionage, was first announced over two months after her initial detention and only six days before her trial. Ms. Saberi was not provided with a public trial nor was the judgment against her made public. The brevity of the trial (one day) suggests she may not have been allowed a meaningful opportunity either to confront the witnesses against her, or to contest the admission of the alleged confession that her father says she was tricked into making.
  • CPJ is hopeful that the appellate court will take into account the international legal standards to which Iran has agreed to be bound. This is particularly important because Ms. Saberi‘s case is not unique. For further background, we refer observers to the opinions on Iranian cases, and a broader report on the Iranian judicial system, by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention of the United Nations Human Rights Council, available online at http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/dpage_e.aspx?m=117. The Working Group investigates complaints that individuals have been detained in violation of international law. As set forth in these documents, the Working Group has raised similar concerns about due process and freedom of expression in earlier cases.

The background paper was prepared by the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, which represents CPJ.