Hometown friends and colleagues of an American journalist imprisoned in Iran for espionage maintain that she's a political pawn and not a spy — though a local newspaper editor hesitates to declare her innocent without seeing the evidence.
Roxana Saberi, who grew up in Fargo, was convicted last week after a one-day trial behind closed doors and was sentenced to eight years in prison. American diplomats objected, and Iran's president said this week that she should be allowed a full defense in her appeal.
The comments of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has helped to ease the shock of Saberi's conviction, said Donald Clark, a state legislator who lives near Saberi's parents in Fargo.
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"It looks like a setup deal to me. She's a pawn in a bigger chess game," Clark said Monday. "This is something that would be a key in opening up relations with the United States, if they desire that. It would be viewed as a goodwill gesture if they turn her loose."
Charley Johnson, the general manager of Fargo TV station KVLY, who hired Saberi in the 1990s after teaching her in a college class, took some hope from the latest developments.
"Looking at the comments from Ahmadinejad, it seems to be a sign that something can be worked out sooner rather than later," Johnson said. "I don't think anyone thinks she went there to be a spy."
Saberi's mission to explore the culture and heritage of the Iranian people should have been a benefit to Iran, Johnson said.
"It seems to me they should have embraced her as a conduit for better relations with the United States," Johnson said. "Now they have turned her into a pawn."
Kevin Melicher, a neighbor of Saberi's parents, said residents plan to tie yellow ribbons around trees in the neighborhood Tuesday, and they plan to help the family with their travel costs and chores at their home.
Last month, residents piled sandbags about 3 feet high in their back yards to defend against flooding from the Red River. Melicher said he greeted Reza Saberi during the sandbagging effort and told him "we were thinking of them.
"He thanked me and said they were leaving for Iran," Melicher said.
Reza Saberi, who was born in Iran, told The Associated Press on Monday that he and his wife visited their daughter in Evin prison north of Tehran.
"She seems to be OK," he said, and was looking forward to her appeal.
Matthew Von Pinnon, editor of The Forum newspaper of Fargo-Moorhead, wrote in a Sunday column that while he doubts Saberi is a spy, "as a fellow journalist — and I think she'd appreciate me saying this though it works against her situation — I've been reticent to declare her innocent without knowing all the facts.
"And that's the most troubling part about all this. We don't know Iran's case against her, or her defense, because the trial was closed. Her father couldn't even attend," he wrote.
Von Pinnon had worked alongside Saberi as a journalist and both were on the same indoor soccer team.
Saberi, 31, is a graduate of Fargo North High School and Concordia College in neighboring Moorhead, Minn. One of her college instructors, Merrie Sue Holtan, said the trial was unfair and she's hopeful the case will be reviewed.
"I think it's higher up in politics than what I really understand," Holtan said. "I know that in prior cases, when their president has spoken, things get done and things happen. I just see it as an opening."
Holtan, who now teaches communication at Minnesota State University Moorhead, said she has talked about Saberi's case with one of her students from Iran.
"I asked her about Iran's judicial system and she said, 'I don't think we have a system,"' Holtan said.