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McClatchy Newspapers, Published May 16 2011

Roxana Saberi can relate to what missing journalist likely going through

SEATTLE — Roxana Saberi can relate to what missing journalist Dorothy Parvaz may be experiencing in Iran.

A journalist from Fargo, Saberi was imprisoned in Iran for 100 days in 2009, accused of spying for the United States. For weeks, she wasn't allowed to see an attorney or contact her family.

If Parvaz, 39, is really in Iran and has been detained or imprisoned, Saberi says, she could be forced to confess to crimes she did not commit, held in solitary confinement for weeks, and be kept from contacting family before she's released.

"I learned the way Iranian authorities treated me was in many ways a pattern for what many political prisoners go through in Iran; from detainment to solitary confinement to being cut off from the outside world," said Saberi, 34.

In 2009, Saberi, who holds dual Iranian and U.S. citizenship, had been in Tehran for about six years. She was working on a book about Iranian society. One day, after a knock, she opened her door to Iranian intelligence officials who accused her of espionage. They took her to an unmarked building and interrogated her in Farsi for several hours before taking her to Evin prison in northwestern Tehran, she said. She wouldn't have her life back for more than three months.

Parvaz works for the Qatar-based news agency Al-Jazeera and has Canadian, Iranian and U.S. citizenship. She used her Iranian passport to enter Syria. She was detained at the airport in Damascus and hasn't been heard from since April 29.

After several days of silence, Syrian embassy officials said this past week that Parvaz had been sent to Iran after she attempted to illegally enter Syria on an expired Iranian passport. She gave "tourism" as her reason for travel, Syrian embassy officials said, although the purpose of her trip was to cover the unrest in Syria for Al-Jazeera.

Iran hasn't confirmed Parvaz is in that country.

"Every hour that passes is an hour too much," said Todd Barker, Parvaz's fiance, on Friday. "We're going on 15 days and 18 hours. She's done nothing wrong, and she should be released."

Saberi said Iranian authorities allowed her to call her father about 10 days after her arrest — but only if she agreed to tell her family she was being detained for buying alcohol — banned under the country's Islamic law — and if she did not reveal her whereabouts.

During the time she was imprisoned, Saberi was pushed by Iranian authorities to tell a number of lies, she said in a telephone interview. She'd be released if she confessed to spying, she was told. She confessed, though she was no spy. She recanted afterward, but she was sentenced to eight years in prison anyway.

An Iranian appeals court overturned the sentence a month later, and Saberi was released in May 2009. "When you're in a situation where you can't talk to anybody from the outside world, I think you become more susceptible to any pressures that you might be under," she said.

Saberi said it's hard to speculate about what Parvaz is experiencing in Iran because her location hasn't been confirmed. In Saberi's case, misinformation about why and where she was being detained was given by Iranian authorities.

Larry Pintak, a former Middle East correspondent for CBS with more than 30 years in journalism, offers another perspective on Parvaz's disappearance. It likely was the expired passport that initially caused her detention in Syria, said Pintak, dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communications at Washington State University. Journalists often list tourism as a reason for entering a country, said Pintak, who writes and lectures on America's relationship with the Muslim world.

"You're taking a calculated risk and cutting corners; you write down 'tourist' and slip in." There are times, he said, when there is no other way for a journalist to get into a country that's in turmoil.

Pintak said usually a journalist who is caught pretending to be a tourist will get a slap on the wrist. "There are relatively few countries where you'd end up detained," he said. "Usually you'll just get tossed out."

"If Iranian authorities want to make a political case out of you, they will," Saberi said. "It doesn't matter what the reality is. They can fabricate evidence and falsely accuse you of crimes you didn't commit. It happens quite often for political prisoners in Iran, and I hope that's not the case for Dorothy."

Since Parvaz went missing, U.S. officials, family members, co-workers and groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Asian American Journalists Association have called for her release.

"I think what's most important for somebody who's imprisoned in Iran is for ordinary individuals around the world to speak out for him or her," Saberi said.