An American journalist imprisoned on espionage charges in Iran for four months was freed Monday and reunited with her smiling, tearful parents — a move that clears a major obstacle to President Barack Obama's attempts at dialogue with the top U.S. adversary in the Middle East.
The United States had said the charges against Roxana Saberi, a 32-year-old dual Iranian-American citizen, were baseless and repeatedly demanded her release.
Hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could also win some domestic political points a month before he faces a re-election challenge from reformers who seek to ease Iran's bitter rivalry with the United States.
Saberi's Iranian-born father, Reza Saberi, wiped away tears, then flashed a broad smile as he and his wife, Akiko, arrived at Tehran's Evin prison — notorious for holding political prisoners — to meet their daughter. Akiko Saberi, who is of Japanese origin, wore a flowered headscarf.
"I'm very happy that she is free. Roxana is in good condition," Reza Saberi said later at his family home in Tehran. "We had expected her release but not so soon. She will be preparing to leave (Iran) tomorrow or the day after tomorrow."
The younger Saberi, who was taken out of Evin through a back door away from journalists, was not seen after her release. She was staying with her parents at a friend's home, apparently to avoid publicity before leaving Iran.
Her release came when an appeals court reduced her eight-year prison sentence on charges of spying for the U.S. to a two-year suspended sentence, said Iranian judiciary spokesman Ali Reza Jamshidi. He said Saberi was free to leave Iran.
The court ordered the reduction as a gesture of "Islamic mercy" because she had cooperated with authorities and had expressed regret, he said.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the Obama administration continues to stress that Saberi was wrongly accused, "but we welcome this humanitarian gesture."
The release ends an ordeal for Saberi, who was convicted and sentenced in a secret session by a security court. Her father said the trial lasted only 15 minutes and her lawyer was not given time to defend her.
Her parents, who live in Fargo, N.D., rushed to Iran to seek her freedom. At one point, the younger Saberi held a hunger strike protesting her jailing, but ended it after two weeks when her parents, visiting her in prison, asked her to stop because her health was weakening.
Saberi, who was crowned the 1997 Miss North Dakota, moved to Iran six years ago and had worked as a freelance journalist for several organizations, including NPR and the British Broadcasting Corp.
She was arrested in late January, but it was not known until Feb. 10, when she called her father in Fargo and told him she had been detained. She said it was because she had bought a bottle of wine, which is illegal in Iran but available on the black market. Her parents decided not to publicize the news until early March when their concerns grew because their regular communications with her were cut off.
The next day, Iran's Foreign Ministry acknowledged her arrest, saying she was working in the country illegally because her press credentials were revoked in 2006. But when she was put on trial in mid-April, she was convicted on much harsher charges of spying for the United States.
The conviction and heavy sentence brought strong criticism from the U.S. and other countries at a time when Obama was reaching out to Tehran. Iranian leaders have given mixed signals to the U.S. outreach, sometimes appearing cold, but at times expressing optimism over possible talks. Saberi's arrest, however, was seen by many in the West as a sign that at least some hard-liners in Tehran may be trying to scuttle any overtures.
In the face of U.S. criticism, Ahmadinejad and others sounded a more moderate tone, promising that Saberi's case would get a full review on appeal.
On Sunday, the appeals court convened for five hours, allowing the defense to make its case. Her lawyers emerged saying they were able to defend her and were optimistic her sentence would be reduced.
Saberi family friends in Fargo were elated at news of her release. Last month, many had tied yellow ribbons around trees in the quiet upscale neighborhood along the Red River Valley to show support for her.
Marianna Malm, Saberi's former English teacher at Fargo North High School, was in tears Monday as she prepared for work.
"They are tears of joy," Malm said. "It's an overwhelming announcement."
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said Saberi's imprisonment "could not stand the test of public opinion."
"Obviously this means Iran has responded in the right way to this situation," Dorgan said. "They're moving to correct something that was a terrible miscarriage of justice."