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MID: US reporter free after Iran suspends jail term

By Aresu Eqbali
12 May 2009 2:30 AM

TEHRAN, May 11 AFP - US-born reporter Roxana Saberi walked free from an Iranian jail on Monday after a court reduced her prison term for spying to a two-year suspended sentence, ending a four-month ordeal.

"I'm okay. I don't want to make any comments but I am okay," the US-Iranian national told AFP minutes after leaving Tehran's notorious Evin prison and being driven away by her father.

In Washington, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was "heartened" by the news.

Saberi was initially detained in January and sentenced last month to eight years on charges of spying for the United States in a case that caused deep concern in Washington and among human rights groups.

"The verdict of the previous court has been quashed," her lawyer Saleh Nikbakht said. "Her punishment has been changed to a suspended two-year sentence."

The ruling was greeted with joy and relief by Saberi's father Reza, who has been in the country since March to push for her release and said he is planning to leave Iran with her.

Iran's judiciary said the two-year sentence would be suspended for five years, and a judicial source told AFP that the 32-year-old journalist and former US beauty queen would be free to leave.

"She is not forbidden to leave Iran and if she wants she can do so but she is forbidden to work as a reporter," judiciary spokesman Ali Reza Jamshidi was quoted as saying on the state-run television's website.

"Her remorse and regret and her cooperation, also taking into account the Islamic compassion and the fact that she is a first time offender had a direct effect over the shortening of her sentence," Jamshidi added.

Her release comes just a day after a Tehran court heard a closed-door appeal by Saberi, who was initially detained in January reportedly for buying alcohol, an illegal act in the Islamic republic.

Saberi, who worked for a number of foreign media outlets, had been accused of "cooperating with a hostile state," a charge which carries a prison term of one to 10 years. Washington dismissed the allegations as baseless.

But Nikbakht said the appeal court had quashed the initial April 13 verdict on the grounds that the United States and Iran could not be defined as hostile towards each other.

"She was sentenced to two years suspended for gathering secret documents," he said.

Iran, which does not recognise dual nationality, has said Saberi had continued working "illegally" after her press card was revoked in 2006.

Her father said he would soon be taking his daughter back home.

"We are happy and satisfied with her release. We were expecting her release but not so soon. Roxana is well and we will spend the night at a relative's place," he told reporters.

"Tomorrow and the day after, we will be getting ready to go back but no date for our departure has been set."

He told the pan-Arab Al-Jazeera television station that the espionage charges were "impossible to believe," describing Roxana as a "balanced reporter."

Saberi launched a protest hunger strike on April 21, taking only water or sugared water, but ended it after about two weeks after being briefly hospitalised.

The sentence was the harshest ever meted out to a dual national on security charges in Iran and came just weeks after new US President Barack Obama proposed dialogue with Tehran after three decades of severed ties.

Obama said he was "especially concerned" about Saberi, but Iran insisted the case was an internal matter and urged foreign countries not to interfere.

"Obviously we continue to take issue with the charges against her and the verdict rendered, but we are very heartened that she has been released and wish her and her family all the very best," Clinton told reporters.

In London, Amnesty International in a statement said Saberi should "never have been imprisoned in the first place."

Shortly after her original eight-year sentence was announced President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahrudi called for a fair appeal.

"Neither of their requests had any influence on the verdict, except making the judges more accurate in their ruling," Jamshidi said.

Saberi, who is also of Japanese origin, has reported for US National Public Radio, the BBC and Fox News, and has lived in Iran for the past six years.