I’m glad that American and international media have been paying close attention to reporter Roxana Saberi’s detention. NPR, in particular, has been producing a steady drumbeat of updates, reminding listeners that Saberi has worked for the network and pointing towards the unfairness of the legal procedures she’s faced without explicitly demanding her release. I’ve spoken to several human rights professionals who tell me that this is the preferred tactic for dealing with Iran – the goal is to send a message that pressure will be continous, firm and public, while leaving flexibility for Iranian authorities to reduce her sentence without being seen as “meeting demands” from international groups.
I don’t know Saberi personally, but I’m following the story very closely because of an interesting development linking her case with that of an old friend, Hossein Derakshan. Hossein has been detained in Iran since November. He’d returned to Iran from London and knew that some of his previous actions, including a trip he’d taken to Israel years earlier to connect with bloggers there, might attract the government’s ire. On the other hand, Hossein’s politics had turned sharply in recent years – he was no longer sympathetic to Iranian reformists associated with former president Khatami, and was deeply concerned that America and Israel would attack Iran. Many bloggers were surprised, hurt and alienated by Hossein’s changes of opinion, and when he was detained, there was a great deal of skepticism (including within the Global Voices community) about his arrest. Beyond skepticism, there was a sense of paralysis, as Hossein had made it clear to friends that if he were to be detained by Iranian authorities, he didn’t want a campaign to advocate for his release, and especially not a campaign with US support. (My friend Elijah Zarwan expressed his frustration at the situation, noting that he knew Hossein didn’t want a campaign on his behalf, but felt like he couldn’t continue to “sit on his hands”.)
So it was a great surprise to see a statement from Iranian president Ahmadinejad asking prosecutors to protect the rights of Saberi and of Derakshan. I think some commentators were surprised to see a figure that many people consider to be a provocative hardliner asking for due process. But the request likely reveals factional tensions within Iran, and suggests that Ahmadinejad sees some benefit in lessening tensions with the US, while other forces take a more hardline stance and worry about threats to their authority if US/Iranian tensions lessen.
My surprise was in seeing Saberi and Derakshan mentioned in the same document. While Hossein has written for publications like the Guardian, he’s better known as a blogger than as a journalist. His politics and his request for activists not to advocate for his arrest would seem to put him in a different category from Saberi. But it makes sense that Ahmadinejad might link the two. Both are figures well known outside Iran, whose continued detention will lead to ongoing pressure and tension from the West. Some friends have suggested that they’re two figures who would be easy for Iranian authorities to release, winning points in international circles without raising too much tension with Iranian hardliners. That level of Iranian kremlinology is beyond me, but I was reassured to see that Derakshan’s detention hadn’t been forgotten… and deeply surprised that Ahmedinejad was the one reminding us of his continued captivity.