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Mila Koumpilova, Published May 12 2009

Friends, supporters relieved to hear of Saberi’s release

For Roxana Saberi’s friends and supporters, elation set in after stints of incredulity Monday morning.

Following months of setbacks and disappointment, the news of the Fargo journalist’s abrupt release from prison in Iran seemed “too good to be true,” said Margo Melnicove, Saberi’s one-time National Public Radio mentor.

Melnicove questioned the news her brother delivered in a phone call from Israel – then wept with joy and relief as she watched television coverage of the release.

Charley Johnson, KVLY’s general manager who once hired Saberi at the Fargo TV station, rejoiced after bracing for bad news. And Pamela Jolicoeur, president of Concordia College, Saberi’s alma mater, quizzed two assistants who delivered the news about their sources.

“It just takes a few moments to grasp,” Jolicoeur said. “Then your reaction is, ‘Wait a minute? Is this for real?’ ”

Later Monday, apprehension gave way to eager anticipation of Saberi’s return to the United States.

Kevin Melicher, a neighbor of parents Reza and Akiko Saberi in north Fargo, promptly called the fellow resident in charge of mowing the family’s lawn, who in turn called the neighbor in charge of decorating the house for the Saberis’ return from Iran.

News of Saberi’s release “spread like wildfire” through the north Fargo neighborhood, said Gary Mailloux, who lives three doors down from the Saberis. Residents exchanged thrilled messages through an e-mail list that neighbors used during the recent flood fight. They are planning to check with the Saberis before throwing a neighborhood celebration in their honor.

“We’re just happy that a positive ending has occurred, and now what we have to guard against, I think, is not being too intrusive and let the Saberis savor the freedom,” Mailloux said.

Jolicoeur said Concordia will hold a homecoming party for Saberi in the fall – so she can finally address students after her scheduled graduation speech fell through this spring.

“We’ll have a very formal and very grand celebration,” she said.

Melnicove, who stepped in as graduation speaker for Saberi, said she’s eager to fly in from the East Coast for Saberi’s homecoming. She’s of course interested to find how Roxana was treated in prison and what got her through her ordeal.

But, “My first question would be, ‘Is she OK? How can I help her cope in any way?’” she said.

Cathy McMullen, a professor of English and journalism at Concordia College, said she was still sleeping Monday morning when her husband woke her with the good news about her former student.

“That got me out of bed pretty quickly,” she said.

McMullen said she worried daily about what was happening to Saberi and about her health, especially during her hunger strike.

For Johnson at KVLY, the weeks leading up to Sunday’s appeal of Saberi’s eight-year jail sentence were marked by a sense of helplessness and frustration whenever Saberi’s story vanished from network news. He didn’t want to see the reporter’s ordeal slipping into obscurity.

“For people who know her, it’s been a rollercoaster,” he said, adding, “This is the best possible news after months of bad news.”


Obama team welcomes ‘humanitarian gesture’

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama is relieved at the release of American journalist Roxana Saberi from a jail in Iran, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday at the daily press briefing.

“We know this has been a trying time for her family and friends,” Gibbs said. “And he (Obama) looks forward to welcoming her home to the United States.”

He said the administration continues to stress that Saberi was wrongly accused, “but we welcome this humanitarian gesture.”

-Kelly Smith


Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki contributed to this report

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529