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Imprisoned U.S. Journalist Marks Birthday, Misses Commencement

( [email protected] ) May 06, 2009 01:48 PM EDT
Roxana Saberi couldn’t mark her 32nd birthday with friends and family last week and won’t be speaking at her alma mater’s commencement ceremony Sunday as she had planned.
North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven, right, speaks in support of imprisoned journalist Roxana Saberi as Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker listens during a vigil, Saturday, May 2, 2009, on the Veterans Memorial Bridge between Fargo, N.D. and Moorhead, Minn. (Photo: AP Images / The Forum, David Samson)

Roxana Saberi couldn’t mark her 32nd birthday with friends and family last week and won’t be speaking at her alma mater’s commencement ceremony Sunday as she had planned.

The Fargo, N.D.-born journalist is currently still in jail in Iran and reportedly into her second week of a hunger strike after being convicted last month of espionage.

“We are still hopeful that Roxana will be able to come home very soon,” said Pam Jolicoeur, president of Saberi’s alma mater, Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn.

Concordia, a college of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, announced last week that Saberi’s mentor, award-winning broadcast journalist Margo Melnicove, had been asked to give Sunday’s commencement address in place of the imprisoned alumna as the Concordia community and the world remained unsure of when she would be released.

“We think having her mentor speak is a fitting way to honor the Class of 2009,” Jolicoeur stated in the announcement.

Saberi was convicted last month of spying for the United States after a one-day closed-door trial that even her Iranian-born father was not allowed to attend. Saberi was arrested in late January for purchasing alcohol – which is illegal in Iran – but accused earlier this month of spying for the United States.

Born and raised in the United States, Saberi had moved to Iran about six years ago to learn more about her cultural heritage. While there, she also worked as a freelance journalist for news organizations including the National Public Radio (NPR), BBC, ABC and Fox.

According to Iran’s foreign ministry, Saberi’s press credentials had been revoked in 2006 and she had since been working illegally. Her parents, however, say Saberi was writing a book when she was arrested and that she had hoped to finish it and return to the United States “for good” this year.

Furthermore, Saberi has dual citizenship – the result of her birth in the United States and her father’s birth in Iran.

For weeks now, Saberi’s case has been highlighted around the world and has sparked a number of protests and vigils, including a few on Friday – World Press Freedom Day – and one on Saturday that drew hundreds on a bridge connecting her hometown and the city of her alma mater.

North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven said Saturday’s rally at the Veterans Memorial Bridge recognizes Saberi's plight and asks that she and her family "be allowed to return home."

“Secretary Clinton assured me that the State Department is doing all they can to secure her release, and told me that she would let me know if there is anything else we can do to help," Hoeven had reported earlier last week after speaking with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"Roxana and her family are in our hearts and our prayers. We continue to call on Iranian officials to release her."

At a news conference on Saturday, Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, assured his visiting Japanese counterpart that Saberi’s case will be "reviewed justly and humanely."

Saberi’s lawyer, Abdolsamad Khorramshahi, meanwhile, reports that a ruling on the appeal they have filed could take up to three weeks.

"Since there is an order for speedy consideration of the case ... there is every possibility that it will be dealt with on an emergency basis," Khorramshahi told Reuters last week.

In an unexpected letter, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had urged Tehran’s chief prosecutor to make sure Saberi is allowed a full defense during her appeal. A day later, Iran’s judiciary chief, Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, ordered a full investigation into the case.