State’s human rights advocates say U.S. terrorism policies complicate Saberi case

Roxana Saberi
REUTERS
Roxana Saberi poses for a photograph in Bam, 776 miles southeast of Tehran, in 2004. Her father says she made “confessions” under duress after she was arrested in January.

With one clear voice, the United States insists on full legal rights for Roxana Saberi, the American journalist from Fargo who sits in prison in Tehran.

With many voices, though, we argue over what to do about some 240 foreign men who have been locked for years in cells at Guantanamo Bay without basic legal rights.

For Saberi’s friends and family in the Midwest, her case brings frighteningly close to home the reasons why so many Americans — from top military officials to exasperated human rights advocates — have warned for years that our own citizens would be endangered if we took shortcuts on human rights in the name of fighting terrorism.

“We have very, very little room to criticize unfair legal proceedings in Iran,” said William Beeman, the author of several books on Iran who chairs the University of Minnesota’s Anthropology Department.

The record of Guantanamo and other recent U.S. tactics such as secret lockups around the world now make it “tough for us to excoriate Iran” in this case, Beeman said.

No comparison
Let’s make one point clear from the start. On the merits of the cases, no one I interviewed sees any similarity between the imprisoned journalist in Tehran and  alleged terrorists at Guantanamo.

Some of the men at Guantanamo truly are dangerous killers who should be punished for terrible crimes. The problem is that other detainees may be innocent of any crime. Courts have yet to sort them out even though most of them have been held prisoner for more than seven years.  

“These are not parallel cases obviously but the situation opens up the opportunity for rhetorical comparisons by the government of Iran and its sympathizers to say, ‘We are giving the same level of due process to Roxana Saberi that you gave to the Guantanamo detainees,'” said Barbara Frey who directs a human rights program at the University of Minnesota.

The nations of the world have agreed on minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners. And there is considerable self interest in honoring the standards whether the cases come up in Tehran or in Washington.

“When you try to find exceptions to international standards that are quite clear, one of the risks that you run is that you will no longer be able to measure other governments according to those standards,” she said.

While there can be serious legal consequences for violating international laws as they apply to human rights, the standards are enforced more often than not outside of courts. One country breaks the rules, and the others scold, boycott and impose a range of sanctions.

The United States has lost its moral authority to lead such enforcement in the Saberi case and others that may come up in the future, Frey said.

“It’s very difficult to participate in those criticisms when you have publicly violated those laws and, indeed, tried to reduce their legal meaning,” she said.

Pressure on Washington
The upshot is that the drama in Iran adds to the pressure on Washington to investigate allegations that Bush administration officials bent the laws and to bring justice where it is warranted.

At the moment the focus in Washington is on allegations that some high-level Bush administration officials authorized the use of torture.

In Iran, reports of torture and ill-treatment of detainees have been common at Tehran’s Evin prison where Saberi has been held, said Amnesty International.

Her father, Reza Saberi of Fargo, has said she made “confessions” under duress after she was arrested in January. But Iranian authorities have allowed him to visit her. And neither he nor anyone else has said publicly that she has been tortured.

Saberi, 31, was born in the United States and grew up in Fargo, but she also holds Iranian citizenship because her father was born in Iran. She moved to Iran six years ago and worked as a freelance journalist for National Public Radio and other news organizations.

Her arrest may have been related initially to purchasing alcohol, which is forbidden under strict Islamic law, Beeman said, but she was formally accused of working with expired press credentials. Later a judge charged her with passing classified information to U.S. intelligence services. Last week she was sentenced to eight years for espionage.

Amnesty International has cited many flaws in the Iranian government’s handling of her case.

“A shifting tide of accusations from the time of her arrest until her trial is an indication that the Iranian authorities were looking for any excuse to detain her,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty’s deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme.

Amnesty also said she was denied access to lawyers before her “confession,” that the rushed one-day trial gave her no time to prepare a defense against the espionage charge and that Iranian authorities have yet to disclose any convincing evidence.

Disturbing parallels
This is where human rights advocates see disturbing parallels with detainees at Guantanamo and other lockups around the world that U.S. authorities had run secretly.

“What we are looking at is a lack of the fundamental due process involved in rights under the Geneva Conventions: the right to know the charge against you and the right not to testify against yourself,” Frey said.

At Guantanamo, most of the detainees “didn’t even know what they were charged with for many years,” she said. When they were charged in special proceedings intended as substitutes for U.S. courts, they were not given access to much of the evidence being used against them.

“That is similar to Roxanne Saberi’s case in the sense that if you don’t give the person the right to challenge the evidence that’s being used to charge and convict you, then that’s a violation of fundamental due process,” Frey said.

Bush administration officials argued that the detention facilities they created at Guantanamo were needed in a dangerous age of terrorism to combat Islamist militants. The officials cited national security concerns for keeping some evidence secret. And one reason men were held there for years without clear charges was that U. S. courts were wrangling with the administration over their rights. Courts have only recently begun hearing challenges to their detentions.

President Obama has announced plans to close the Guantanamo camp next year, and he has established a multi-agency review of each detainee’s case. But Republicans in Congress are seeking to block some $80 million Obama has requested to shut down the camp and relocate the men, the Associated Press reported.

“The administration needs to tell the American people what it plans to do with these men if they close Guantanamo,” U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor Tuesday.

“Foreign countries have thus far been unwilling to take them in any significant numbers. And even if countries were willing to take them, there’s an increasing probability that some of these murderers would return to the battlefield,” McConnell said

Iran embarrassed
In Iran, the signals are that Sabari may be saved by complex political maneuvers as she gets ready to appeal her conviction.

The country’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has said Saberi should be allowed full reign to defend herself in an appeal of her conviction, and the chief of Iran’s judiciary has ordered an investigation of the case.

In the latest development, an Iranian filmmaker said Tuesday that he is engaged to marry Saberi. Bahman Ghobadi defended her as innocent and circulated in an open letter begging Iranian authorities to release her, the Associated Press reported. Her father said he could not confirm that Ghobadi was Saberi’s fiancé.

Ghobadi’s claim that Saberi planned to leave Iran but lingered for his sake could help explain why she was working with expired press credentials, Beeman said.

“I think that frankly the central powers in Iran are somewhat embarrassed by all of this,” he said. “I think this is something that just got out of hand.”

Any solution to the related controversy in the United States will be far more complicated, involving many layers of government and independent commissions.

“We have come through a huge crisis,” Beeman said. “It has to be addressed, but it can’t be addressed in a way that proves utterly destructive to all of the people you have to work with.”

But some level of correction is essential for the sake of American leadership around the world, Frey said.

“In order to restore our credibility we need to take care of our business at home, investigating who is responsible for violations of international law and deciding collectively as a democratic community how we can address those violations,” she said.

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Peter Swanson on 04/23/2009 - 10:34 am.

    “Let’s make one point clear from the start. On the merits of the cases, no one I interviewed sees any similarity between the imprisoned journalist in Tehran and alleged terrorists at Guantanamo.”

    Since you brought it up, whom did you interview for this story?

    —-

    “What we are looking at is a lack of the fundamental due process involved in rights under the Geneva Conventions: the right to know the charge against you and the right not to testify against yourself,” Frey said.

    This is where it gets sticky (I know, as a journalist, you only have so many column inches; stories of this type do not go into that level of detail, blah blah blah). Is Frey arguing for POW status, where they would get Article V tribunals, immunity from prosecution for their war-like acts, and then be repatriated at the end of the war (whenever that is)? Or is she arguing that belligerents captured on the battlefield should be tried in civilian courts? The quote is unclear what we should be doing. Obviously, the POW route and the civilian prosecution route have very different consequences and could also cause Iran to assert a false equivalence between what we do and what they do.

    —–

    “In order to restore our credibility we need to take care of our business at home, investigating who is responsible for violations of international law and deciding collectively as a democratic community how we can address those violations,” she said.

    Hmm. We have to determine “who is responsible…” not “whether” they are responsible. I heard somewhere about this thing called “presumption of…” well, I forgot. But I think there has to be an inquiry into whether a crime has been committed before you pick people to punish. After all, we have to be sticklers about due process so that Iran will automatically follow suit.

  2. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 04/23/2009 - 03:54 pm.

    Peter, I don’t think the question, “Since you brought it up, whom did you interview for this story?” is reasonable. The quotes have names with them.

    “But I think there has to be an inquiry into whether a crime has been committed before you pick people to punish. After all, we have to be sticklers about due process so that Iran will automatically follow suit.”

    I agree with that statement in general, but in the case of human rights abuses by the Bush administration, we already know whether and who, so the question is what we’ll do about it. Indeed, let’s be sticklers. Let’;s take the evidence released to the public and use that to begin a proper criminal investigation, and follow the evidence to whoever it points to, with no nonsense about “time to look forward” or “don’t criminalize policy differences”. Just follow the law, which is really all human rights advocates have been asking for all along.

  3. Submitted by Peter Swanson on 04/23/2009 - 09:29 pm.

    I only asked who she interviewed because I was wondering if she got a range of opinions.

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/24/2009 - 08:56 am.

    The doctrine “presumed innocence” isn’t universally accepted in all legal systems, I’m not sure how it’s handled in Iran.

  5. Submitted by William Pappas on 04/26/2009 - 07:11 am.

    I was surprised this issue was not addressed the day after Sabari arrested. Apparently everyone was aware of the sensitivity and precarious legal position Saberi found herself and refrained from potential incendiary discussions until her immediate fate could be sorted out. This stands in direct contrast to the ignorance of the Bush Administration when they considered torture and illegal detainment as tools in the “war against terror”. To a person, the Bush legal team never considered that such policies would invite similar reprisal arrests and ignored the fact our moral justification to address human rights violations would be systematically destroyed.
    The significant debate should now be how we can reclaim that moral high ground without allowing our legal system to run its course by bringing to justice the individuals that directed others to break international laws regarding prisoner detainment and torture. I agree whole heardedly that we cannot reclaim this necessary morality without allowing investigations, charges, trials and punishment. Until we do this our citizens will be infinitely more at risk around the world, our soldiars will be subjected to more inhumane treatment if captured and the entire country will be less safe as the United States attempts to recover from massive human rights violations by wiping them out from our memory.
    Obama is dangerously misguided in adopting this strategy of selected amnesia to right our violations of fundamental human rights and the rest of the world knows it.

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