May 11, 2009 -- American journalist Roxana Saberi was freed from a Tehran prison today after an Iranian court suspended her eight-year sentence handed down after she was convicted of espionage. That means no prison time, and she will be able to leave the country immediately, though Saberi will not be allowed to report from Iran for five years, her lawyer told ABC News.
Saberi, 32, a dual American-Iranian national was first arrested in January for buying alcohol, and was later accused of reporting without press credentials and charged with espionage.
She was found guilty April 18 in a one-day closed trial criticized for its lack of transparency, and reportedly hospitalized after a two-week hunger strike protesting the conviction. Her appeal was heard Sunday.
Secretary of State Hlilary Clinton today applauded Saberi's release.
"She is currently with her family and will be leaving Tehran to return to the United States in the coming days," Clinton told reporters.
"Obviously, we continue to take issue with the charges against her and the verdicts rendered but we are very heartened that she has been released and wish her and her family all of the very best."
Saberi, who spent her 32nd birthday in prison, had reported from Iran for international news outlets including, National Public Radio, Fox News, the BBC and ABC News. Her press credentials were revoked in 2006 by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which accredits journalists working in Iran.
Over the course of her detention, Saberi's case made international headlines and spurred a global movement for her release. Alexis Grant of freeroxana.net said the Web site had organized a 400-person hunger strike, with people fasting in shifts of one day, to end with news of Saberi's release.
Though Saberi's release has been interpreted as a goodwill gesture on the part of Iran, the case has complicated budding diplomacy between the United States and Iran -- a crucial aspect of President Obama's Middle East foreign policy agenda. Obama called on Iran to free her, an appeal that was repeated by the State Department.
Obama said he was confident that Saberi was not involved in any espionage, and that he was "gravely concerned" for her safety.
President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and other Iranian officials had hinted of her release weeks before the appeal was in heard.
"I am hoping as a sign of goodwill we will see the release. I'm hoping that the accusations against her will prove to be inappropriate," Ahmedinejad told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos in an interview after her conviction. "I am not a judge, and I do not pass judgment over judicial cases," Ahmadinejad said. "In Iran, the judiciary is independent. I have stressed [that], like others, she should be accorded her full rights."
Ahmadinejad, when asked whether he would release her as a humanitarian, goodwill 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."
Her parents, who live in North Dakota, have been in Tehran since Saberi's arrest to press for her release.
Iran Accused of Coercion
Meanwhile, Saberi's parents revealed the details of their daughter's arrest, accusing the Iranian government of coercing her into a false confession.
Akiko Saberi said her daughter was arrested at her apartment at night, and that the police went through her things and took her away.
He father, 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 said that the confession did not have legal grounds because lawyers were not present at the signing. Saberi later recanted in the presence of her lawyer and in court.
The Committee to Protect Journalists called Iran's press freedom record "one of the poorest in the world," highlighting the cases of at least five journalists still imprisoned in the country. In March, blogger Omidreza Mirsayafi died in detention in Evin prison, where Saberi has been held.
The Damage is Done?
Saberi's case had 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 criticizing Israel at the U.N. conference on racism in Geneva.
"Iran will release Saberi when it feels its political purpose has been achieved. But damage to diplomacy will be done," wrote Cliff Kupchan of the Eurasia Group, analyzing the impact of the case on U.S. foreign policy.
"Given the "real politik" tack of the Obama administration, negotiations will move forward, but under a new cloud."
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.