By Omid Memarian | Inter Press Service
SAN FRANCISCO, May 26 (IPS) - In a case that human rights activists say echoes that of recently released journalist Roxana Saberi, the Iranian government has imprisoned a woman employed by a U.S.-based non-profit organisation working to improve child and maternal health in the country, alleging that she acted as a spy for the United States.
Silva Haratounian, an Iranian citizen of Armenian descent, held a modest position with the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX), which focuses on international education, academic research, professional training and technical assistance.
Her work and life were interrupted on Jun. 26, 2008 when she was detained by Iranian authorities and charged with participating in an effort to overthrow the Iranian government through a ''velvet revolution." On Jan. 19, 2009, she was sentenced to three years in jail.
"Haratounian is completely innocent and has not committed any crime," Abdolfattah Soltani, a human rights lawyer in Tehran who is representing Haratounian, told IPS.
"She told me she had lost 11 kilogrammes in one month," he said. "Though she has not been physically hurt, she has had to endure a lot of psychological hardship."
On May 11, a three-judge panel announced that the revolutionary court that convicted Roxana Saberi, an American Iranian journalist who was held in Tehran's Evin prison for more than three months, had charged her under the wrong section of Iran's criminal code.
Saberi was initially sentenced to eight years in prison after being convicted of "cooperating with a hostile state", but the appeals court overturned that verdict on the grounds that Iran and the United States cannot be described as states that are hostile to each other in the legal sense of being at war.
Haratounian was sentenced under the same section of Iran's penal code, making her family and lawyers hopeful that an appeals court could overturn the verdict.
"I believe suspects such as Roxana Saberi and Silva Haratounian and people in other similar cases have not committed any crimes, rather, these are cases which have been reviewed with a very harsh, personal, and unique approach of certain judges and some intelligence operatives based on their interpretation of the laws," said Soltani in a telephone interview.
Soltani said that many defendants are perfectly willing to be tried in a public court, "So why don't they do it? If [prosecutors] have evidence, why would they cut the suspects off from the outside world during early interrogation stages, preventing their contact with their attorneys? Why don't they let them contact their families? Why are they isolated and forced to accept whatever the interrogators want them to accept?"
In December 2007, Haratounian responded to a newspaper advertisement and was hired as an administrative assistant, working for IREX on a maternal and child health education exchange programme.
A few days after Saberi's release earlier this month, Haratounian's mother, Nvart Moradkhan, told IPS by telephone, "This is good news for Silva, right? The two cases are similar, and we should hear some positive news about Silva soon."
Haratounian's ailing mother is the only person who can visit her weekly. "Her health is deteriorating," said Moradkhan. "She has lost so much weight. Her hair is all gray, she looks very old. She is very depressed. She has a lot of health problems, [including an] ulcer, and had asked the attorney to ask for doctors."
"Silva Haratounian is an innocent victim of the Intelligence Ministry's obsession with finding American spies," Hadi Ghaemi, coordinator of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, a New York-based group, told IPS.
"She was simply an administrator for an American NGO doing a project in Iran and the Iranian government was aware of its activities. She was unfairly prosecuted based on the same indictment that Roxana Saberi received an eight-year sentence for originally, and then the appeals court threw out that indictment."
"Standards of justice need to be consistent in Iran and if Saberi's appeals court ruled the U.S. is not an 'enemy government' then Haratounian should be released too because her conviction is based on the same article of the law," Ghaemi said.
Paige Alexander, vice president of IREX, told IPS that the government has thus far failed to respond to letter sent by the organisation appealing for Haratounian's release.
"We have coordinated with a number of different lawyers on this case and we have been working tirelessly to bring attention to Silva's plight through the formulation of the www.freesilva.org website, press outreach and other public and private religious and diplomatic efforts," Alexander said.
"Having had IREX attend meetings in Iran at the government's request before, we believed that this modest programme was a proper vehicle to start reaching out to Iran in a non-controversial way," she noted.
"IREX never imagined that anyone could construe this programme to be inconsistent with any interest of the Iranian government and since the purpose of the programme was to have Iranian and American participants enhance their knowledge of best practices in this field, IREX believed this was completely consistent with Iran's national interest," she said.
In July 2008, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki had declared that "contacts between Iranians and the American people will be a useful step for better understanding of the two nations," according to the Islamic Republic News Agency.
"IREX attempted to model the MCHEEP programme on other programmes which we believed had been sanctioned by the Iranian government," explained Alexander.
Haratounian's attorneys are now in the last phase of her appeal.
"I am hopeful Silva Haratounian's three-year jail term will be reversed in a trial with educated and experienced judges," Soltani said.