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Obama's Hostage Crisis By: Matt Gurney
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, April 24, 2009

While Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s anti-Semitic rhetoric at the UN’s laughably titled “Anti-Racism Conference” has been the main focus of the world’s attention, Iran has been garnering further international headlines for another outrageous act: the imprisonment of an innocent American woman for cynical political gain.

Not content simply to threaten the West with the specter of nuclear rockets, Iran now seeks hostages with which to test the young Obama administration. The pawn in Ahmadinejad's game is Roxana Saberi, a freelance journalist and American citizen, who has lived in Iran for the last six years. During that time she has filed stories with numerous Western news outlets, while working on a Masters degree (her third) in Iranian studies and international relations. Born and raised in Fargo, North Dakota, she is the daughter of an Iranian-American father and a Japanese-American mother. Academically successful and obviously brave, she has not shied away from reporting Iran’s most controversial actions, and has served as a voice for the Iranian people, speaking out to major news organizations such as the Fox News Channel, National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corporation.

No longer. In late January of this year, Saberi vanished after being arrested by Iranian authorities, apparently for the crime of purchasing a bottle of wine. On February 10th, she made two telephone calls home to her father, telling him that she’d been arrested for buying alcohol, but would be released soon. She urged him not to contact the press. He obliged, but after hearing nothing for the rest of the month, he did indeed contact the media about his daughter’s detention on February 28th. When pressed to comment, Iranian officials confirmed that Saberi was being held, but claimed it was not for the purchase of black market alcohol, but for continuing to report illegally from Iran despite having had her credentials revoked in 2006.

The Iranian story changed yet again two weeks ago. Iran announced that Saberi had been charged with espionage. In the words of the prosecutor, “Without press credentials and under the name of being a reporter, she was carrying out espionage activities.” No further information was given: not who she’d been spying for, or what intelligence she was accused of gathering. After a one-day trial, which was closed to not only the media but also to Saberi’s father, she was found guilty of espionage, and given an eight-year sentence.

Saberi is currently being held in Tehran’s Evin prison. Notorious for its housing of political prisoners, it has been rumored to hold captured Israeli Air Force pilot Ron Arad, missing in action since 1986, and, in a case with troubling parallels to Saberi’s imprisonment, held Iranian-born Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi in 2003.

Kazemi was arrested for photographing a small protest outside the very same prison in which she would find herself imprisoned. Nineteen days later, she was dead, of what Iran alternatively claimed was a stroke or a head injury resulting from a fall. Two years later, however, an Iranian doctor revealed that he had examined Kazemi at a military hospital, and recorded obvious signs of mistreatment, including beatings, floggings, and rape. An Iranian judge ultimately agreed that Kazemi had been mistreated and that her death was the result, but refused to convict anyone in particular for the crime.

Kazemi is not the only journalist to die under questionable circumstances at Evin Prison. Barely one month ago, Iranian blogger Omid Mir Sayafi, imprisoned at Evin for “insulting” the Ayatollah Khameini, died while in custody. The suspicious death was called a “suicide.” Despite Iran’s increasingly dubious denials, it is clear that Evin is where Iran sends troublesome journalists to die.

There is some cause to hope for a better outcome in the case of Roxana Saberi. For one thing, her plight has received considerable attention from Western media and the Obama administration. President Obama has publicly said that he believes the charges against her are false, and Secretary of State Clinton has called for a speedy appeal of her trial and a Saberi’s immediate release and return to America upon the presumed acquittal. Ahmadinejad himself has weighed in, calling for a full appeal of the case, and suggesting that Saberi should be permitted to speak in her own defense. By the standards of Iranian jurisprudence, this may be considered progress.

It is hoped that Saberi will be acquitted and released, or at least sentenced to a vastly reduced punishment, and perhaps ordered out of the country, to safety. The United States, operating through Swiss diplomats in Tehran, can be expected to lobby hard for this result.

But will it do anything more? The imprisonment of journalists is a growing problem, and will prove an early foreign-policy challenge for President Obama, who is more used to dazzling the media than protecting it.

Consider that Saberi is not the only American journalist currently being held hostage by a hostile power. Laura Ling and Euna Lee, both American citizens, are currently imprisoned by the North Koreans on charges of illegally entering the country and other unspecified “hostile acts.” If convicted, they face years of hard labor in a Stalinist gulag. This awful fate is made worse by the blatant opportunism their arrest represented: they were taken into custody at exactly the same moment that Pyongyang was ratcheting up tension on the Korean Peninsula by preparing for the ultimately failed launch of a ballistic missile.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee, like Roxana Saberi, are not criminals, but hostages held under the flimsiest of legal pretexts. Both Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong-Il seem determined to test the new President of the United States, and while continuing on with their development of weapons of mass destruction and their related delivery systems, have no compunction whatsoever about taking genuine journalists prisoner, to be used as bargaining chips in any negotiations with America. Threatening these women with long, harsh sentences creates a distraction and could potentially bind America’s hands at moments of maximum tension.

Today, three Americans remain in captivity in hostile lands, their only crime having been to seek the truth in countries where truth is a dangerous thing. They deserve better than to be used as pawns in despots' twisted power plays. President Obama, acting as both the leader of the free world and the commander-in-chief of the most powerful military in history, must commit himself fully to seeing these women returned to America. A free and vibrant press – and several courageous lives – depend on it.

Matt Gurney is an assistant editor for comment at Canada’s National Post, and writes and speaks on issues of military and geopolitical concern. He can be reached at mgurney.responses@gmail.com

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