Roxana Saberi, a US-Iranian, who has been held in in the notorious Evin prison for over two months, apparently on espionage charges, was visited on Monday by her parents for the first time since her arrest.
Abdolsamad Khorramshahi, her lawyer, said the couple, who arrived in Tehran at the weekend from Fargo, North Dakota, found their daughter to be “physically and psychologically in a good condition”.
The lawyer confirmed that he had now received the official indictment against her but refused to comment on the allegations. Earlier he told the FT that Ms Saberi had been told by her prosecutor that she was to be charged with espionage. He said he hoped his client would be released on bail soon.
Ms Saberi had threatened recently to go on hunger strike if she was not released, according to her lawyer. “She rules out the charges and is impatient to be freed,” he told the FT.
Ms Saberi was arrested by the Revolutionary Court, which deals with national security charges, although it is not clear whether her arrest was related to her journalism or the book she was writing. Ms Saberi has worked for the BBC, National Public Radio and Fox News for six years in defiance of a ban by the Iranian authorities on her journalistic activities since 2006.
Iran has a poor human rights record in social and political spheres including imprisonment and suppression of reform-minded political activists, students and journalists.
Tens of students from Amir-Kabir University were arrested earlier this year when they objected to a government decision to bury martyrs from Iran-Iraq war on their campus. Eight of them remain in jail.
Although imposition of the death sentence is rare against critics of the regime, from time to time there are suspicious deaths in jail.
A blogger, Omid-Reza Mirsayafi, who was charged with insulting Iran’s top leaders on his blog, died in Evin prison last month after spending 40 days there as part of a 30-month jail sentence. The authorities told the victim’s lawyer that he had committed suicide.
Iran also has one of the highest execution rates in the world for social crimes such as adultery.
Amnesty International says Iran is second only to China for the number of executions it carries out each year, and has the worst record on executing minors, ahead of Saudi Arabia. Last year eight minors were hanged in Iran and Human Rights Watch says there are at least 130 people under the age of 18 on death row.
“Most of these minors are normal teenagers who committed crimes over such issues as fighting over girls at a sensitive age,” says Mohammad Mostafaei, a lawyer representing 30 young defendants.
The victory of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Iran’s fundamentalist president, in 2005 led many of Iran’s human rights groups to freeze their efforts and assume a low profile out of disillusionment and the fear of persecution.
“Things have not become necessarily worse than before but the problem is that human rights are not a priority for this government,” says one activist.
Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi-Shahroudi, who heads Iran’s judiciary, is respected by many lawyers as an open-minded cleric and is viewed as one of the most sympathetic advocates of human rights within the regime.
He has intervened in some cases to limit the prison sentences of activists, stop the hanging of minors and the penalty of stoning to death. He has not always been successful, partly because he represents a minority among the senior clergy most of whom are radical and Sharia-obsessed.
The judiciary has now presented a new penal code with the goal of making it human rights-friendly. It is being studied by parliament and is expected to be approved by the summer.
However, some lawyers are already disappointed. “The new bill will not resolve Iran’s problem internationally even though it takes positive – but insufficient – steps,” Babak Farrahi, a lawyer, says.
Some improvements include reducing prison terms and going some way towards abolishing the penalty of stoning to death, by inserting a clause that it should not be practised if it undermines Islam in the eyes of the international community.
But execution remains the dominant penalty for murder committed by adults or minors, homosexuality, drugs smuggling, armed action against the Islamic regime and any major moves to disrupt the country’s political, economic and social order.
Lawyers are also dismayed by the addition of amendments that define apostasy for the first time as a crime carrying the death penalty and impose the punishment of blinding for anyone found guilty of complicity in a murder.