TEHRAN, Iran – Iran freed two German journalists arrested four months ago in connection with a highly publicized stoning case, and Germany's foreign minister went to Tehran on Saturday to bring the reporters home in a rare top-level visit by a Western government representative.
An Iranian court threw out the journalists' 20-month prison sentence Saturday, commuting it to a fine of $50,000 each and clearing the way for their release, state media reported.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in Tehran thanked his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi, for his "commitment to the relations between our countries." Westerwelle's office said in a statement the ministers also discussed their differing opinions on "questions of human rights and the development of democracy."
The Germans — a reporter and a photographer for the Berlin-based mass-circulation tabloid Bild am Sonntag — got caught up in one of the many confrontations between Iran and the West.
They interviewed the son of an Iranian woman sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, whose case has generated widespread international outrage.
Marcus Hellwig and Jens Koch were detained in October after interviewing Ashtiani's son in the northwestern city of Tabriz. Throughout their detention, Iranian officials accused them of a range of serious crimes from spying to having links to groups of Iranian exiles.
Ultimately, they were found guilty of committing acts against Iran's national security. State media reports on Saturday did not elaborate on the details of their alleged offenses.
Officials have also claimed they admitted to violating Iranian laws barring those entering the country on tourist visas from working as journalists.
In Saturday's ruling, a court in Tabriz said the Germans "deserved to have their punishment commuted and enjoy Islamic mercy," state TV reported.
Hours later in Berlin, Germany's Foreign Ministry said the two had been released and were in the care of German consular officials in Tabriz. They then flew to Tehran and were seen arriving at the capital's Mehrabad airport. The two men looked healthy.
Westerwelle later joined the pair and took them back home to Germany on his government plane. They arrived safely in Berlin on Sunday morning, the foreign ministry said.
"We are all jubilant today," Bild am Sonntag's deputy editor Michael Backhaus told The Associated Press. "This is a 132-day-long nightmare that is now ending for the newspaper's staff and all relatives."
Backhaus declined to discuss details of how the journalists' release had been achieved. He said diplomatic efforts were made continuously behind the scenes.
Germany had also sent a deputy foreign minister to Iran in late January as part of its diplomatic efforts to secure the release of the two journalists.
The photographer's father said he was overwhelmed by joy when he first learned of their release.
"As a father, you just cry out of joy," Andreas Hartmann told Bild am Sonntag.
The sisters of Hellwig were equally relieved.
"We are grateful and full of joy that the long phase of fear and hope has finally come to a good end," Miriam Lobinsky and Christina Hellwig told the paper.
Westerwelle's office said the minister also talked about Iran's controversial nuclear program, but stressed the minister had not come to negotiate, but merely reiterated the European and Western position on the issue. Germany is part of the six nations leading the negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program.
Ashtiani was convicted of adultery in 2006 after the murder of her husband and sentenced to death by stoning. In the face of international outrage, the sentence has been suspended and is under review by the Supreme Court.
She was later convicted of being an accessory to her husband's murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison. In the wake of the international outcry over the verdict, the Iranian government has been at pains to show that Ashtiani is guilty, airing several interviews with her repeatedly confessing her crimes.
Baetz reported from Berlin.