- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 3, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

The world is in need of a little healing right now, a time of change and challenges among nations and cultures. Humanitarians around the planet work in countless communities to help make things better — as aid workers, teachers, journalists and spiritual leaders.

Yet every so often, a humanitarian’s relationship with the world gets turned upside down, so instead of helping the world, that good-hearted person needs our support.

Right now, my colleague Silva Harotonian sits in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison, innocent of any wrongdoing yet sentenced to three years in jail on political charges. We ask the world to come to her aid by calling for her release. Silva’s story will sound familiar. Journalist Roxana Saberi suffered through a similar ordeal during her detainment on political charges, and Ms. Saberi’s release on May 11 gives hope to those of us asking for mercy for Silva.

When the same legal basis for Ms. Saberi’s discharge is applied to Silva’s case, it indicates Silva also should be granted freedom. Additionally, Iran’s judiciary chief, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, commented on Ms. Saberi’s appeal that “all the aspects of this case, such as its moral and worldly elements, should be considered in a careful, quick and fair way.” As she approaches her second and final appeal, Silva deserves the same.

Silva, an Iranian citizen of Armenian descent, has always been a natural humanitarian. A compassionate soul, she actively served her Armenian Christian church and cared for ailing family members. We at the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX) hired then 33-year-old Silva in late 2007 to work on one of our many international, peer-to-peer exchange programs.

As a nongovernmental, not-for-profit organization with a 40-year history of international academic and people-to-people exchange initiatives, IREX employs more than 500 people around the world and has touched many thousands without ever being accused of nefarious intentions.

Silva provided administrative support for our Maternal and Child Health Education and Exchange Program, which allowed health care professionals in the United States and Iran to share information on best practices.

Despite her modest role, serving the women and children in her home country of Iran struck a chord with Silva. She worked from our office in Yerevan, Armenia, translating documents, answering phone inquiries and occasionally traveling to Iran to explain program logistics to the health care exchange’s participants.

At the end of Silva’s fourth trip to Iran, in June 2008, Iranian authorities arrested her. Months later, they formally charged her with conspiring to overthrow the government through a “soft revolution” and then sentenced her to three years in prison. Her first appeal was denied a few weeks ago.

Silva is no revolutionary. In fact, our colleague never took much interest in politics or following the news. She preferred to write poetry and go to the theater when she wasn’t working or caring for her family.

Neither Silva nor we at IREX have secret agendas. We are nonpartisan humanitarians and closely cooperate with the governments in the countries where we have been granted permission to operate. Our work around the world speaks for itself, as IREX has achieved successes in Egypt, Jordan, Kosovo, Lebanon, Morocco and countless other places.

With the experience of 40 years serving in more than 100 countries, we know misunderstandings can lead to severe consequences. After almost one year in jail, Silva continues to pay dearly. With limited prior life experience, she has served time that will forever impact her life. Day by day, her spirits and health deteriorate. Now is the time to send her home.

By releasing Silva to her family now, Iranian authorities can demonstrate the need for law-abiding behavior and show the value of forgiveness and mercy, as in Ms. Saberi’s situation. Such an act would also reinforce the special, important role of humanitarians in the world. Those who give so much to others deserve special consideration.

Like all of us at IREX, Silva conducted her work with pure intentions of spreading good will, by helping mothers and children while promoting Iran’s health care advancement.

As Silva appeals her conviction, we will keep pursuing all avenues for her release. In addition, her family is working desperately to bring her home. It has set up a Web site, www.freesilva.org, where visitors can sign a petition of support. Together, our voices are becoming louder and our pleas for freedom more meaningful.

On behalf of humanitarians doing good work around the world, please join us in helping to bring Silva home.

W. Robert Pearson, president of the International Research & Exchanges Board, is a former director general of the U.S. Foreign Service and a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey.

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