Two German journalists have returned to native soil after four months in an Iranian jail for reporting from the Islamic Republic. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle personally brought the two back to Berlin.
Koch (l) and Hellwig (r) step off the plane with the foreign minister on Sunday in Germany
A government spokesman confirmed early Sunday that Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle had landed at Berlin-Tegel Airport with the two journalists released by Iran after more than four months in custody.
Westerwelle met briefly with senior Iranian officials including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and thanked his counterpart Ali Akbar Salehi for his efforts to release the two men. It was the first time a German foreign minister had visited the country since 2003.
"I thank my Iranian counterpart for his helpful support on this issue," Westerwelle said, adding that he discussed human rights "with urgency in all the talks I had."
Marcus Hellwig and Jens Koch, reporters for the German tabloid Bild am Sonntag, were arrested on October 10 last year in Tabriz. They had traveled there to conduct interviews with the son and lawyer of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a woman sentenced to death by stoning after being convicted of adultery.
The journalists (one of whom is shown on the right) had no official press accreditation
Following the release of the men, who were arrested for working as journalists without proper documentation, German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her pleasure that their plight was over.
"I am very happy that Marcus Hellwig and Jens Koch are finally able to return to Germany as free people," Merkel told Bild am Sonntag, the German Sunday newspaper that employed the two men. "I hope that they recover quickly, physically and psychologically, and overcome the hard events of the last months."
Tehran said Hellwig and Koch had no permission to conduct interviews in Iran, having entered the country on tourist visas.
Heavy fines instead of jail
The detainees were reportedly found guilty of acts against Iranian national security and were ordered to pay fines of 500 million rials (35,400 euros; $48,400) after prison sentences were commuted.
Iranian news agency Isna reported Saturday that trial hearings had been held for the two and they had been sentenced to 20-month jail terms.
"They enjoyed Islamic clemency because of their special status and also because of the clarity of being misused [by others] to act against national security," Isna reported.
Relief at place of work
Meanwhile, in Germany the Bild newspaper's deputy editor-in-chief expressed his relief at the reporters' release.
"We all are very happy, the colleagues, the relatives and the whole company," Michael Backhaus told the Reuters news agency.
Author: David Levitz, Richard Connor (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)
Editor: Sean Sinico