On Tuesday, April 13, 2010, Roxana Saberi, a Northwestern Medill alumna, spoke to students and members of the public about her captivity in Iran. She recounted her arrest and detention in Iran and her hopes for the future.
Saberi was arrested in Iran and imprisoned for four months. She was accused initially of buying a bottle of wine, operating without press credentials and finally convicted of being an American spy. After conviction, she was placed in solitary confinement and intimidated by her captors, though she was not physically beaten.
Saberi was imprisoned in section 209 of the infamous Evin Prison, which she said is run by the intelligence agency and is, “not accountable to the law.” She recounted, “I could hear other prisoners screaming and crying,” including another female prisoner accused of being a spy.
Addressing students and faculty in the McCormick Tribune Center forum, Saberi said that in exchange for a promise of freedom, she finally confessed to espionage and promised to spy on behalf of Iran. Afterwards Saberi said she “felt ashamed” and had “abandoned principles,” and recanted her confession while still in prison. She later found out that her retraction of the false confession came only two days after the Iranian authorities had promised to free her shortly. A judge sentenced Saberi to eight years in prison, though she was unable to see the evidence against her, cross-examine witnesses or receive competent counsel.
Saberi’s imprisonment drew worldwide attention, particularly after her two-week-long hunger strike. After both President Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton called for her release, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for a fair trial. She was released on May 11, 2009.
Saberi credited the media and activists with her release, saying “I think social media had a big role.” She went on to say, “If there were no attention on these things, repression would be much worse.”
Recalling the numerous other political prisoners still imprisoned, Saberi encouraged the audience to support Reporters without Borders and Our Society Will Be a Free Society, sign petitions and contact their representatives in Washington. “The efforts of ordinary people are very important,” she reminded.
When asked about relations between the United States and Iran, the journalist encouraged open dialogue between the two countries, but hoped that “human rights will be a first tier issue […] even as the U.S. purses the nuclear issue.” She then encouraged Americans to “empower Iranian people to stand up for rights in their own country.”
Despite her treatment, Saberi hopes she is able to return to Iran at some point. “I had come to love Iran […] Iranian people were very warm to me.”
After the speech, Dean John Lavine stressed Saberi’s Northwestern connection, saying “Roxana was part of Medill before this,” and she is “one of the family.” He noted that one of her first public speeches was at Northwestern graduation last year.
Lavine called her work “the heart of what Medill does […] this is what journalism is.” Last year, Dean Lavine presented Roxana Saberi with the Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism.
Saberi recently releasedBetween Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran. She received a Master’s Degree from Medill in 1999.