On Wednesday, an Iranian news agency announced that an Iranian appeallate court reduced Kian Tajbakhsh's prison sentence from 15 years to five years.
Tajbakhsh, a U.S.-Iranian scholar who earned his Ph.D. from Columbia, was arrested over the summer, during the aftermath of the controversial presidential election. He was given a 15-year jail sentence in October on charges of spying and being a threat to the national government. He was accused of working with George Soros' Open Society Institute and being on the email list of Columbia researcher Gary Sick, both of which Iran connects to the CIA. Sick has denied this charge.
Tajbakhsh was supposed to step into the position of visiting professor in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation in September. Prior, he had conducted research at Columbia's Global Center in Amman, Jordan.
The Iranian government also arrested Tajbakhsh in 2007 for similar reasons, and he was held in Evin Prison for over four months and released only after his family paid a bail fee.
Since his latest arrest, University administrators and professors have lobbied for his immediate release.
In the fall, Columbia and the White House both called on Iran to discharge Tajbakhsh. A letter advocating his release circulated amongst the faculty at the time and gathered over 150 signatures. In January, a group of faculty and administrators also sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking for her help to obtain his release. Early this month, a spokesperson for Clinton followed up and asked for the release of Tajbakhsh and other Iranian prisoners.
This week's sentence reduction was the first good news, several supporters said.
Kenneth Prewitt, the Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs at Columbia, said that he is hopeful this change would help the effort.
"I am greatly encouraged by this sentence reduction, and join with many of Kian's supporters the hope that this is a step toward release, even if on bail," he said in an email on Thursday.
Prewitt also learned recently that Tajbakhsh had been allowed to see his family, a further sign of hope.
"I am also encouraged by informal word that he has ... been allowed to visit his family, who report that he is healthy, and, always important to a scholar, that he has access to books," he said.
Despite this optimism, for some it is only a minor feat.
Sick said in an interview on Thursday that he is "very happy that they cut his time in jail down" but that it is still "five years longer than it should be" since "he doesn't deserve to be in jail at all." He also said that he did not understand the political reasons behind the reduction.
In an interview in January, Iranian Studies professor Hamid Dabashi, who signed the letter to Clinton, said, "We want to keep the case of Kian Tajbakhsh at the forefront of global attention so that political considerations or the geopolitics of the region are not allowed to override the more pressing human rights abuses."