American-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi has made headlines for her imprisonment in an Iranian jail after being found guilty of spying for the United States — a charge the U.S. State Department says is baseless.
But few have heard of Silva Harotonian, another woman being held in the same Tehran prison.
Harotonian, 34, a Christian Armenian who was born in Iran, is serving a three-year sentence on charges she conspired with others in an American plot to overthrow the Iranian government. The humanitarian aid worker has been held for nearly a year in the notorious Evin Prison, the same prison where Saberi is carrying out an eight-year sentence.
"It has been a devastating time and extremely confusing time for our family," said Klara Moradkhan, Harotonian’s cousin who lives in Los Angeles. "Knowing Silva, she is no revolutionary; she is no spy and has no interest in politics."
Harotonian, an Iranian citizen, was in the process of getting a U.S. green card when she was detained in Tehran last June 26 while working as an administrative assistant for IREX, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization. IREX, which receives funding from the U.S. State Department, coordinates professional educational exchanges in 50 countries.
Harotonian’s relatives say she was on her fourth work-related trip from her home in Armenia to Iran for a project on maternal and child education when she was arrested at her mother’s apartment in Tehran. A few days later her family learned she was in Evin prison.
"Just the word Evin itself gives you so much fear, it’s beyond us,"says Moradkhan.
"Silva's mother is the only family member to have visited her," she added. "Every time she sees her, once a week, her health is deteriorating, she had depression, she has lost weight, she is pale, her hair is all gray, her mother says she looks more like a 70-year-old woman."
Despite her deteriorating status, Harotonian has reportedly been overheard encouraging the 32-year-old Saberi, who went on a hunger strike last Tuesday after she was convicted in Iran's Revolutionary Court.
Since last summer, Harotonian’s family and supporters in the U.S. have worked around the clock reaching out to members of Congress and world diplomats for help in getting her released. But family members say they have come up against a number of brick walls.
They have even tried to reach out to Pope Benedict XVI through various diplomatic channels, but have received no word.
While many agree that the charges against Harotonian are outlandish, they acknowledge that pushing the Iranian government to release one of its own citizens is difficult.
Harotonian’s mother and cousins are American citizens, and Silva had hoped to join the rest of her family in Los Angeles. But she is still waiting for her green card application to be processed.
Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, has stepped up to offer assistance. He discussed the matter with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she testified before his committee on April 22.
"I am very concerned about the issues surrounding Silva Harotonian’s incarceration," Berman told FOX News.
Although Harotonian is not an American citizen, Berman has said he will do whatever he can to help. "I will certainly continue to raise Silva’s case in any appropriate meetings and venues," he said.
The next week could prove critical, her family says. Thursday is the final opportunity for attorneys in Iran to appeal Harotonian’s three-year conviction. If that fails, Moradkhan said they will rest their hopes on the possibility that Harotonian could be pardoned for good behavior on the first anniversary of her imprisonment in June, or that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei might show mercy and release her early.
The family says they will be pleading their case directly to the Supreme Leader through whatever means necessary. “We’re praying, that’s all we can do,” Moradkhan said.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson is reportedly considering traveling to Iran to try to negotiate for Saberi’s release, and his office has hinted that he may also seek Harotonian's freedom.
In the meantime there are Facebook pages, Internet postings and a Web site called freesilva.org dedicated to Harotonian's release. Moradkhan said a large-scale vigil is being planned to garner attention for both Harotonian and Saberi.
"Knowing her deep in my heart and who she is, and what an innocent person she is," Moradkhan says of her cousin, "I cannot stop until she is out."