Saturday, 14 March 2009

Guardian: Iran arrests American journalist 'over wine purchase'

A US journalist has been arrested and detained in Iran, apparently after being reported to the authorities for buying a bottle of wine.

Roxana Saberi, 31 – who has worked for the BBC – was taken into custody more than a month ago, according to her Iranian-born father. Her whereabouts are unknown and it is unclear whether she is still being held.

An Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, Hasan Qashqavi, today said Saberi had been engaged in "illegal activities" and had continued to work after her press credentials had been withdrawn.
"This reporter should not have been illegally seeking news and information from Iran," Qashqavi said. "Her accreditation was over in 2006, after Iranian authorities revoked her press card. Her activities since 2006 were completely illegal and unauthorised."

Saberi, who had also worked for the American radio station NPR, had been in Iran for six years and was writing a book about the country.

Her father, Reza, who lives in Fargo, North Dakota, said he learned about his daughter's detention when she called on 10 February, about 10 days after her arrest. The family initially kept the matter quiet in the hope that she would be released but later decided to speak out. "She called from an unknown place and said she's been kept in detention," he told NPR. "She said that she had bought a bottle of wine and the person that sold it had reported it, and then they came and arrested her."

The bottle of wine appeared to be simply a pretext for her arrest, he added. While drinking alcohol is illegal under Iran's Islamic legal code, it is widely available on the black market.
Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a spokesman for the committee for defending Iranian press freedom, voiced concern that no information had been released on the allegations against Saberi or her whereabouts. He also dismissed suggestions that buying alcohol had prompted her arrest.
The arrest of foreign journalists is rare in Iran. However, foreign nationals with Iranian parents who work as journalists are subject to extra scrutiny and sometimes harassed. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Iran has the world's sixth-worst record for jailing journalists, and detained or investigated more than 30 in 2008.
NPR said Saberi's press credentials were withdrawn more than a year ago but said she continued to file short news stories, which the Iranian government tolerated.

Saberi, who has a Japanese mother, is a former Miss North Dakota beauty queen. She originally went to Iran to complete a master's degree on Iranian studies and international relations.

Her arrest is the latest in a series of detentions of Americans with Iranian backgrounds, apparently inspired by government fears that the US is trying to use them to foment a "velvet revolution".

Last year, Esha Momeni, a student from California who was researching women's rights in the country, was held for 26 days after being arrested, ostensibly for a traffic offence. She was later released but banned from leaving the country.
In 2007, four Iranian-American academics were detained or had their passports confiscated for several months, before eventually being allowed to return to the US.

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