Convicted by Iran of spying for the US and given an eight-year jail sentence, Roxana Saberi is at the centre of a tense new stand-off between Tehran and the West. Barack Obama has demanded the release of the 31-year-old journalist, who has dual Iranian and American nationality. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has intervened in the case. And yesterday, an acclaimed Iranian film director stepped forward to proclaim her innocence, denounce her imprisonment as an act which has brought shame on all Iranians and publicly to declare his love for Ms Saberi.
In a moving and heartfelt open letter, written "with tears in my eyes", Bahman Ghobadi, whose films have won prizes at the Cannes and Berlin film festivals, said Ms Saberi was a victim of Iran's "political games" because she happened to be the holder of an American passport.
Speaking publicly of their relationship for the first time since her arrest, he begged the authorities to let her go and described her as "an Iranian", a woman who had devoted her time to researching a book in praise of Iran, a woman "too pure" to be used for political purposes. He accused those Iranians who were aware of her research and her sympathies of keeping silent despite knowing "how guiltless she is".
Imploring the Iranian judiciary to let him at least testify at her appeal he said that, as the person who had "shared every moment with her" he could attest that it was impossible for her to have worked as a spy.
Ms Saberi, whose arrest in January was said to have been because she attempted to buy a bottle of wine, was later accused of working without the proper media accreditation before being charged with espionage. Yesterday she appealed against her sentence as her father warned she could soon begin a hunger strike. At the same time, a judiciary spokesman in Tehran hinted her sentence may be reduced or commuted.
Mr Ghobadi may be hoping that his letter will help to humanise Ms Saberi among his fellow Iranians and, by revealing insights into her life, demonstrate how far removed she was from the profile of a professional spy in the pay of the CIA. The director is a member of the so-called New Wave of Iranian cinema. He has worked closely with such figures as Abbas Kiarostami and won prizes for films including A Time for Drunken Horses and Half Moon. In 2006, Turtles Can Fly won him an Index of Censorship award for its contribution to freedom of expression.
It is not believed that Ms Saberi's prosecution was linked to Mr Ghobadi's work. Indeed, her relationship with one of Iran's leading film-makers might have protected her, had it been more widely known among the Iranian political hardliners who may see her as a way to derail Mr Obama's attempts at rapprochement.
The director's cut: What the letter said
"If I kept quiet until now, it was for her sake. If today I speak, it is for her sake. She is my friend, my fiancée, and my companion, an intelligent and talented young woman I have always admired.
It was the 31st of January. The day of my birthday. That morning, she called to say she would pick me up so we would go out together. She never came. I called her mobile but it was off and for two to three days, I had no idea what had happened to her. I went to her apartment and since we had each other's keys, I went in, but she wasn't there. Two days later, she called and said: "Forgive me my dear, I had to go to Zahedan." I got angry: why hadn't she said anything to me? I told her I didn't believe her and again she said: 'Forgive me my dear, I had to go.' And the line was cut. I waited for her to call back. But she didn't.
I left for Zahedan. I looked for her in every hotel, but nobody had ever heard her name. For 10 days, thousands of wild thoughts came to mind, until I learnt through her father that she had been arrested. I thought it was a joke. I thought it was a misunderstanding, that she would be released after two or three days. But days went by and I had no news. I started to worry and knocked on every door for help, until I understood what had happened.
It is with tears in my eyes that I say she is innocent and guiltless. It is me, who has known her for years, and shared every moment with her, who declares it. She was always busy reading and doing her research. Nothing else. During all these years I've known her, she wouldn't go anywhere without letting me know... To her friends, her family, everyone that surrounded her, she had given no signs of unreasonable behaviour.
How come someone who would spend days without going out of her apartment, except to see me; someone who, like a Japanese lady, would carefully spend her money, and had sometimes trouble making a living; someone who was looking for a sponsor to get in contact with a local publisher so her book would be printed here [in Iran] now be charged with a spying accusation?! We all know – no, we have all seen in movies – that spies are malicious and sneaky, that they peep around for information, and that they are very well paid. And now 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.
At the beginning of our relationship, she wanted to go back to the United States. She would have liked us to go together. But I insisted for her to stay until my new film was over... And now I am devastated, for it is because of me she has been subject to these events. These past years, I have been subject to a serious depression. Why? Because my movie had been banned, and released on the black market. My next movie was not given an authorisation, and I was forced to stay at home. If I've been able to stand it until today, it is thanks to the help that she provided me with.
... She is the one who took care of me while I was depressed. Then I convinced her to stay, I wanted her to write the book she had started in her head... She was absorbed by her book, to the point that she could stay and bear it all, until my film would be finished, and we would leave together.
Roxana's book was a praise to Iran. The manuscripts exist, and it will certainly be published one day, and all will see it. But why have they said nothing? All those who have talked, worked and sat with her, and who know how guiltless she is.
I am writing this letter for I am worried about her. I am worried about her health. I heard she was depressed and cried all the time. She is very sensitive. To the point she refuses to touch her food. My letter is a desperate call to all statesmen, and to all those who can do something to help.
From the other side of the ocean, the Americans have protested against her imprisonment, because she is an American citizen. But I say no, she is Iranian, and she loves Iran. I beg you, let her go! I beg you not to throw her in the midst of your political games! She is too weak and too pure to take part in your games.
Let me be present at her trial, to sit next to her wise father and gentle mother and testify she is without guilt or reproach. I am optimistic about her release and I hope the verdict will be cancelled in the next stage of the trial. My Iranian girl with Japanese eyes and an American ID, is in jail. Shame on me! Shame on us!"