US Releases Iranian Journalist After 10 Turbulent Days

In this undated photo provided by Iranian state television’s English-language service, Press TV, American-born news anchor Marzieh Hashemi, right, smiles as she stands with her son in Tehran, Iran. The elder son of Hashemi says his mother is being held in the United States, but has not been charged with anything. Hussein Hashemi says she was detained Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019, as she was leaving St. Louis for Denver. He says she had filmed a Black Lives Matter documentary in St. Louis after visiting family in New Orleans. (Press TV via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Apparently satisfied with her cooperation, the United States released a prominent Iranian television anchor Wednesday night following a 10-day detention related to an unspecified criminal case.

Though no details about the case have been made public, a person familiar with the matter told the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity that Marzieh Hashemi had fulfilled her obligation as a material witness and was released. 

It was Hashemi’s son who brought global attention to the 59-year-old journalist’s mysterious detention, saying federal agents took her into custody on Jan. 13 at an airport in St. Louis.

An anchorwoman for the Press TV network’s English-language service, Hashemi was born in the United States and travels here once a year usually to visit family and work on documentary films, her son said. On this occasion, Hashemi had been working on a Black Lives Matter documentary and visiting family in the New Orleans area.

After news broke that Hashemi was being held in Washington, D.C., as a material witness, U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell unsealed certain records that revealed she had not been charged with any crime, was appointed a lawyer and would be released immediately after her testimony before a grand jury. 

Supporters of Marzieh Hashemi, an American-born anchor for Iran’s state television broadcaster, demonstrate outside the Federal Courthouse where Hashemi will appear before a U.S. grand jury. She is in custody as a material witness. in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

No information is known about the case in which she was called as a witness, but Hashemi is believed to have appeared at least twice before the court.

So long as the government can prove that their testimony has extraordinary value for a criminal case, and that they would likely ignore a subpoena or pose a flight risk, federal law allows judges to order witnesses to be detained.

Laura Pitter from Human Rights Watch said she found Hashemi’s detention alarming.

“Even under the very problematic and previously abused US material witness statute,” Pitter said in email last week, “the government can only detain someone if conditions do not reasonably assure the witness’s appearance for the proceeding for which his or her testimony is sought.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a similar statement the day the Iranian state journalist was first set to appear in court. 

“We are concerned by the arrest of a journalist for Iranian state TV, Marzieh Hashemi, and call on the U.S. Department of Justice to immediately disclose the basis for her detention for the past five days,” said Alexandra Ellerbeck, CPJ’s North America program coordinator.

PressTV, a state-run Iranian news organization, reported that the U.S. agents who detained Hashemi had her “hijab forcibly removed,” and then “photographed without her headscarf upon arrival at the prison.” 

The English and French Iranian news network — affiliated with Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, the only legal broadcaster in the country — also reported in the early days of her incarceration that Hashemi was given pork for meals, which she refused to eat for religious reasons. 

“We shall not stop protesting against those liable for this violation of her clear and inalienable rights until her freedom from incarceration,” PressTV said Wednesday before Hashemi’s release. “We hereby call on the United Nations’ authorities and all supervisory international organizations to condemn the US government’s cruel behavior towards Hashemi.”

Supporters of Hashemi gathered outside the federal courthouse in Washington to protest earlier Wednesday, and PressTV reports that Hashemi is set to remain in the Capitol for more protests on Friday. 

Amnesty International meanwhile released a report Thursday that says 2018 stood as a “year of shame” for Iran, tallying the country’s arrest of more than 7,000 protesters, activists, journalists and students, many of them without cause. 

“Governments which are engaged in dialogue with Iran must not stay silent while the net of repression rapidly widens,” Philip Luther, a research and advocacy director for Amnesty International said in a statement. “They must speak out in the strongest terms against the crackdown and forcefully call on the Iranian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all those jailed for peacefully expressing their right to freedom of expression.”

Hashemi was born in New Orleans as Melanie Franklin. AP reports say she converted to Islam after meeting Iranian students in college around the time of Iran’s 1979 revolution. She lives in Tehran, where she has been working for the state broadcaster for the past 25 years. 

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