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Paris NGO joins hunger strike for jailed journalist

Video by Richard TOMPSETT

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2009-11-16

The press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders has set up camp on the Champs-Elysées in Paris to accompany the jailed US-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi in her hunger strike.

On a damp, chilly April day on the landmark Champs Elysées, members of Paris-based NGO Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, or RSF, in French) are out in force to campaign for the release of US-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi, who is currently imprisoned in Tehran. The press freedom watchdog has set up camp outside the Paris offices of Iran Air. Clad in red RSF raincoats, they are doing their best to interest the crowds of mostly tourists and shoppers, in what is not exactly a hotbed of political involvement.

Saberi, 31, was sentenced to eight years in jail by an Iranian court on April 18 for allegedly spying on behalf of the United States. The trial, which Saberi’s father says lasted just 15 minutes, was held behind closed doors. On April 24, Reza Saberi said his daughter had begun a hunger strike in prison, and her health is thought to be declining rapidly. Two days later, four RSF members, including the organisation’s secretary-general, Jean-François Julliard, began their own hunger strike in an effort to raise awareness of Saberi’s plight and force governments into action.

Like the other three strikers, Elsa Vidal has been fasting for 48 hours. “This isn’t a decision we took lightly. Our aim is not to trivialise hunger strikes,” she says. Vidal may be drained by her fasting, but she shows none of it as she embarks on a heated debate with a sceptical passer-by who wonders whether people would have made such a fuss had Saberi not been a US citizen.

“Alone we are powerless,” she says. “It’s all about raising awareness among the population and getting the message across to our elected representatives, who may then put pressure on the government to act.”

Though not a member of RSF, Nicolas Chadot is busy handing out leaflets and urging people to sign a petition. A friend of Saberi’s, Chadot used to organise French classes at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where the US-Iranian journalist earned a degree in mass communication and French. “She sent me an email in January saying she wanted to leave Iran for a bit because she felt increasingly under pressure,” he says. “She had picked up French classes again at the embassy so that she could come over to France.”

Reza Moini, the head of RSF’s Iran office, has been on hunger strike for just as long the others. There is no doubt in his mind that Saberi’s case is being used by the Iranian authorities as a foreign policy tool. “Roxana is the 11th person of dual nationality to have been arrested under charges of spying since 2005,” he claims. In this power game, journalists end up being the victims, he says.

Saberi is not the only person whose picture hangs above the little RSF tent set up on the busy pavement. Moini says he is also fasting for Mohammad Hassin Falahieh Zadeh, a journalist sentenced to three years in jail in April 2007 for allegedly spying, as well as for 28-year-old blogger Omidreza Mirsayafi, who “committed suicide” in prison in March of this year after he was jailed under charges of insulting the leaders of the Islamic republic.

Despite the raindrops, spirits remain high at the camp. Florence Aubenas, the Libération journalist whose capture by Iraqi insurgents sparked a worldwide campaign for her release, has dropped by to express her support. An Iran Air employee actually smiled and waved at the squatters. Moini says he found over 250 emails of solidarity from Iranian people when he last checked his mailbox, just over a day after he had announced the start of his hunger strike. “If needs be, we can go on striking for 48 days,” he says with a smile.

Date created : 2009-04-30