(Sue Pleming, Reuters) - A U.S.-based nongovernmental group urged Tehran on Monday to release an ethnic Armenian employee jailed for nearly a year, appealing for the same "fairness" it showed by freeing Iranian-American reporter Roxana Saberi last month.
Silva Harotonian, 34, an Iranian citizen of Armenian descent, was working for a U.S. group that arranges educational exchanges when she was arrested on June 26 last year. Harotonian was based in Armenia for the International Research and Exchanges Board and was in Iran working on a U.S.-Iran exchange program for maternal and child health professionals.
In January, she was given a three year jail term on charges of involvement in a U.S.-funded plot to overthrow the Islamic system of government in Iran. Her first appeal was denied and her lawyers have filed a second and final one in recent days.
Robert Pearson, president of the group and a former U.S. ambassador, said the charges against Harotonian were "without foundation," a view that has been echoed by the State Department which provides some funding to the group.
"What we really hope for is for an appeals court in Iran to look at her case with the same sense of fairness that a court looked at Roxana Saberi's case," he told Reuters, referring to the freelance reporter who was jailed on charges of spying for the United States but released three weeks ago. "She is a loyal, patriotic Iranian citizen and has no criminal intent," added Pearson of his employee.
After her release, Saberi said she had shared a cell with Harotonian for a while in Tehran's Evin prison but offered few details on the jailed NGO worker.
While Harotonian is not an American, U.S.-based relatives and her Washington-based employer have urged the State Department to publicly press for her release, as they did in Saberi's case. After Saberi's release, the State Department urged Iran's leadership to also free Harotonian and called the charges against her "without foundation."
"We understand her second appeal is pending and that she is in poor and deteriorating health as a direct consequence of her confinement," said the State Department.
Klara Moradkhan, a cousin of Harotonian who lives in Los Angeles, said the jailed NGO worker had no interest in politics and the family was shocked at the charges against her. "Nothing makes sense," she said of her cousin's case. "We are asking for forgiveness and mercy from the government of Iran," she added.
Iran often accuses the West of seeking to undermine the Islamic state through a "soft" or "velvet" revolution with the help of intellectuals and others inside the country. Iran has cracked down on dissenting voices since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, possibly in response to western pressure on Tehran to halt its disputed nuclear work.