Two German reporters detained for four months after interviewing the son and lawyer of a woman facing death by stoning arrived home yesterday after being freed.
“I am very happy that Marcus Hellwig and Jens Koch are finally able to return to us in Germany as free people,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the Bild am Sonntag, the newspaper for which the two men work.
Koch’s father, Andreas Hartmann, said he was overjoyed by the end of the reporters’ four-month imprisonment, which had strained relations between Berlin and Tehran.
“I think I did not say anything on the telephone, I just listened and cried uncontrollably,” he said in remarks also printed in Bild.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle arrived in Iran late on Saturday to take the two men home.
An Iranian court sentenced the journalists to 20 months in prison for acting against “national security,” but then commuted the sentence to fines of about US$50,000 each, ISNA news agency said.
The two were arrested on Oct. 10 last year in the city of Tabriz after interviewing the son and lawyer of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, whose death sentence by stoning for adultery drew widespread international condemnation.
Quoting a judicial statement, ISNA said trial hearings were held for the two.
After “examining the accusation of acting against national security, they were sentenced to a 20-month jail term,” ISNA said. “But because of their special situation and, it is clear that they were used by one of the others accused in this case, it was felt that they deserved Islamic compassion.”
Westerwelle met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after his arrival.
The two men discussed “regional issues, the situation in Afghanistan and the need to cooperate [in the fight] against terrorism and drug trafficking,” the president’s office said.
At a joint press briefing with Iranian Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, Westerwelle said their meeting allowed them to “get acquainted,” but was not meant to “discuss big issues.”
Salehi said Westerwelle’s visit was to “strengthen bilateral ties.” More meetings had already been scheduled for the future, he added.
Iran wants to “look ahead” in its ties with Germany as the two countries had “many issues to discuss,” he added.
At the end of last month, Iran’s Mehr news agency quoted -Prosecutor-General Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejeie as saying the journalists had entered the Islamic republic as tourists and been arrested because they were in fact reporters.
“They have accepted that their work was illegal,” he said.
Iran had accused the Germans of having links with an “anti-revolutionary group,” and said they had not obtained a special government permit to work in the country, usually required of foreigners.
German Deputy Foreign Minister Wolf-Ruthart Born visited Tehran last month to discuss the case, Bild reported at the time.
Also last month, Salehi demanded “apologies” over the incident from the Axel Springer group, which owns the mass-circulation newspaper.
In late December, Iranian authorities allowed the pair to meet relatives who traveled to Tabriz after repeated requests from the German government. State television broadcast footage of the encounter.
Westerwelle later thanked his Iranian counterpart for his “support” over the detention of the journalists. Mohammadi Ashtiani has been sentenced to death by two different courts in Tabriz — where she is also detained — in separate trials in 2006.