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Boyfriend of jailed U.S. journalist in Iran waits, hopes

His girlfriend is in jail for espionage and acclaimed Kurdish Iranian film director Bahman Ghobadi is thinking about packing up his scripts and editing equipment and heading to Europe. He is tired, he says, of censors and Islamic politics intruding upon his life and art.

But Ghobadi, director of spare, poetic films such as “A Time for Drunken Horses,” doesn’t want to go anywhere until his girlfriend, Roxana Saberi, is freed on appeal. The 31-year-old Iranian American journalist was convicted of spying for the U.S. and sentenced to eight years in prison.

On Wednesday, Ghobadi sat in his Tehran office, gray flecks in his hair, but a face still young, waiting for news.

“I am absolutely sure she will be freed in less than a month,” he said. “If not, I cannot even imagine it.”

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The real-life saga since Saberi’s sentencing Saturday seems grist for a thriller: A journalist accused of crimes against the state emerges as the protagonist caught between two enemy nations -- the U.S. and Iran -- locked in a struggle haunted by the specter of nuclear arms. But for Ghobadi such a script may lack the grit and lyrical, redemptive realism he conjured in “Turtles Can Fly,” the story of children in the mountains of Kurdistan who collect unexploded bombs and wait for satellite TV at the brink of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

There have been indications in recent days that Saberi’s sentence may be commuted or rescinded. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the chief judge of the country’s judiciary have stressed that the journalist, who worked for the BBC and National Public Radio, should receive a quick and fair appeal. Iran, where hard-liners and moderates are battling ahead of June elections, may not want the case to jeopardize improving relations with the Obama administration, which contends that Saberi is innocent.

Ghobadi worries, makes plans, writes letters and talks about the restrictive lives artists and journalists face in his country. He spoke about his depression over the censors’ objections to his films, including “Half Moon,” which was banned in Iran, and his latest, “Nobody Knows the Persian Cat,” which is scheduled to be shown in May at the Cannes International Film Festival.

He is also a man fighting guilt: He asked Saberi to stay in Iran while he worked on “Nobody Knows the Persian Cat,” despite her desire to leave for the United States. She ended up as a co-writer on the script.

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“Roxana and I met 18 months ago, through a Japanese mutual acquaintance,” said Ghobadi, 40. “We had tea at my home and we understood each other and became intimate friends. She’s a talented girl. She even advised me to tone down when I couldn’t get authorization for my last film.”

“She’s more cautious than me,” he said. “I’m sorry that I encouraged her to stay while I finished my film. She was always unhappy because as a journalist she couldn’t get authorization to work and so devoted herself to writing a book about Iran.”

In an open letter posted on the Internet and titled “To Roxana Saberi, Iranian With an American Passport,” Ghobadi writes: “My heart is full of sorrow. Because it is me who incited her to stay here. And now I can’t do anything for her. Roxana wanted to leave Iran. I kept her from it.”

Iranian security forces have gone through Saberi’s papers, read her notes, confiscated her laptop. Her one-day trial was held in secret, and few details of her alleged crimes have emerged from the courtroom, except the broad accusation that she funneled information to U.S. intelligence services.

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“They can read her book manuscript and see that there is nothing [incriminatory] there, just writings about Iran today, its culture, art, politics and economy,” Ghobadi said.

He remembers when Saberi was led away after her sentencing. She looked at him for a moment and was gone.

“I stood at the gate,” he said. “When she was taken away after the verdict, I had one chance to catch her eyes. She was waving and pleading to the guards to let her see me for a moment. Her plea was rejected.

“I fell down on my knee, sat on the ground weeping,” he said. “I am disoriented. My new film has gone to the Cannes, but I have no desire to go.”

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Mostaghim is a special correspondent.


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