Saberi Goes on Hunger Strike, Chicago-Area Students Rally in Support

Roxana Saberi's parents say she is protesting, despite their objections.

April 22, 2009, 8:04 AM

April 23, 2009— -- Roxana Saberi, an Iranian-American freelance journalist sentenced to eight years in an Iranian prison, begins her hunger strike today as students at her U.S. alma mater rally in her support.

Saberi was arrested in late January on charges of buying alcohol, which later turned into allegations of espionage.

When ABC News' George Stephonopoulos met with Saberi's parents in Tehran Wednesday, Reza and Akiko Saberi said their daughter was in good spirits but that she refused to heed their advice to avoid a hunger strike.

Watch the interview between ABC's George Stephanopoulos and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on "This Week" Sunday.

"I tried to dissuade her but she said, 'not this time,'" Reza Saberi told Stephonopoulos. "She is, this time, determined to go on a hunger strike because she says she doesn't deserve to be in there in the prison, she hasn't done anything wrong. She should not be there."

In ABC News' exclusive interview Wednesday, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declined to say whether his government would release Saberi, 31, who has been behind bars for more than two months now.

"I am not a judge, and I do not pass judgment over judicial cases," Ahmadinejad said in the interview with Stephanopoulos at his presidential compound. "In Iran, the judiciary is independent. I have stressed [that], like others, she should be accorded her full rights."

Following Saberi's conviction on Saturday, Ahmadinejad said she should be allowed to offer a full defense during her appeal. Ahmadinejad, who is up for re-election in June, said he will likely make sure she is not abused.

Saberi's parents have hired new lawyers for her appeal, with Iran's Nobel Peace Prize laureate and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi said to be joining the case as a defense attorney. Saberi's appeal could be decided within a week.

President Obama has said he is confident that Saberi, whose parents have moved from North Dakota to Tehran since Saberi's arrest, was not involved in any espionage, and that he is "gravely concerned" for her safety.

Ahmadinejad, when asked whether he would release her as a humanitarian, good-will gesture, said, "I think Mr. Obama, as a sign of change and also to encourage friendship, should allow laws to be processed fairly and allow the judiciary to carry out its duties. I am sure she is not being mistreated."

Fact or Fiction?

Saberi's case has the potential of becoming a thorny issue in the already-tense, U.S.-Iran relations, which have shown potential for improvement since the Obama administration came into power and signaled that it wanted to reach out to the Iranian people. Earlier this year, Obama sent a written holiday greeting to Iranians on the holiday of Nowruz. But at the same time, the new U.S. administration has taken issues with Iran's outspoken president. For instance, the United States condemned Ahmadinejad's statements this week criticizing Israel at the U.N. conference on racism in Geneva.

In the interview with Stephonopoulos, Ahmadinejad echoed Obama's calls for a new beginning but would not commit to sitting down and discussing Iran's nuclear program, saying he is waiting for a response from the Obama administration on the letter he sent to the president when he took office in January.

When asked whether ABC News could visit the detained journalist to see whether she is safe, the Iranian president responded, "Let's see. We'll see if our judicial regulations allow for that, sure. But if they do not allow for that, no. I'm afraid not."

The judiciary office would not allow ABC News to take photographs or get past the gates in Tehran.

For the first time since she was detained, Saberi's parents gave details about the circumstances of the arrest of the former Miss North Dakota.

Akiko Saberi said her daughter was arrested at her apartment at night. The police went through her things and took her away.

Reza Saberi said, "She said first they coerced her, they scared her. They threatened her that if she doesn't sign it, they will kill her."

He said his daughter signed the confession after she was promised that she would be released if she did. Reza Saberi added that the confession does not have legal grounds because lawyers were not present at the signing. Saberi later recanted in the presence of her lawyer and in court.

Saberi was working in Iran for NPR, ABC News and other outlets at the time of her arrest, even though she lost her government-issued accreditation in 2006. Saberi was initially arrested for buying alcohol, which is a crime in Iran. She was later cited for working as a journalist without legal credentials and, earlier this month, days before her trial, Iranian officials charged her for being a U.S. spy.

The closed-door trial that ended Saturday found her guilty. Saberi could face up to eight years in prison, but her parents expressed cautious optimism in the interview with Stephonopoulos.

They told ABC News they fear Saberi is being used as a political pawn to force confessions, or perhaps a prison exchange with the United States.

Conviction Affecting U.S.-Iran Relations?

Saberi's confinement has provided the Iranian president an opportunity to assess how he should deal with the new administration in Washington.

"He's both caught between his desire for a new relationship with the United States, and his determination not to back down on any issue of importance," writes Stephonopoulos.

Obama's team has so far employed cautious language on Saberi's case, which some experts attribute to administration fears that Saberi could become a pawn in the already tense relationship between the United States and Iran.

When pressed by a reporter whether Saberi's conviction constitutes a setback to U.S.-Iran relations, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs Saturday said, "Without getting too far into it, I think what we think is important is that the situation be remedied. And that without getting too deeply into that, I will leave it at that."

The U.S. government said it is working to get more information about her case and to make sure that she is treated properly. Government officials said the journalist was wrongly accused and convicted and that they are deeply disappointed by the Iranian government's actions.

"She is an American citizen, and I have complete confidence that she was not engaging in any sort of espionage," Obama said at a news conference on his trip to Trinadad and Tobago Sunday. "She is an Iranian-American who was interested in the country, which her family came from. And it is appropriate for her to be treated as such and to be released."

Echoing statements made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Gibbs said the United States is communicating through the Swiss government, which represents U.S. interests in Tehran.

"I think we will continue to express the concerns that we have through the Swiss to the Iranian government, and make sure they underscore and understand our deep concern for these actions," Gibbs said at a briefing last weekend.

Meanwhile, students are rallying today at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Ill., where Saberi graduated.

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