By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
An Iranian American journalist accused by Iran of spying for the United States has been tried behind closed doors, Iran's judiciary said yesterday, and a verdict is expected in one to two weeks.
Roxana Saberi "has been charged with spying for foreigners. The first session of the court was held yesterday, and her last defense was heard," judiciary spokesman Ali Reza Jamshidi told journalists, the semiofficial Iranian Students News Agency reported.
"Her spying was for the United States, and I think the verdict will be passed within a couple of weeks," Jamshidi added, saying that it was up to the judge to decide whether future hearings would be open to the public.
The Obama administration says the charges against Saberi, 31, are baseless and has demanded her immediate release.
Saberi holds U.S. and Iranian citizenship, but Iranian law does not recognize her U.S. nationality. Jamshidi dismissed the U.S. call to free Saberi, saying that "giving an opinion on a case, by an individual or a government, without being informed about the facts in it, is utterly ridiculous."
Before Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance revoked Saberi's press credentials in 2006, without specifying the reason, she had worked in the country on a freelance basis for the BBC, U.S.-based National Public Radio and other news organizations.
She remained in Iran and, according to her parents, is writing a book.
Saberi was arrested in late January for allegedly buying alcohol, which is illegal in Iran. Last week, however, an Iranian judge leveled a far more serious allegation against her: spying for the United States.
"This accused has been coming and going to certain government circles under the cover of reporter and without a permit," Judge Sohrab Heydarifard told state television last Wednesday. "She has perpetrated actions to compile and gather information and documents and transferred them to American intelligence services."
Spying is a serious charge in Iran, where political leaders regularly accuse the United States and Britain of espionage and support for organizations known to have committed terrorist acts against Iranian civilians. The heaviest punishment for espionage is death. In a recent high-profile case, a well-connected former Iranian official working as a businessman selling telecommunications equipment was convicted of spying on the military for Israel and hanged in 2008.
Saberi's parents, Reza and Akiko Saberi, met with their daughter in prison yesterday, news agencies reported. They had traveled to Tehran from their home in Fargo, N.D., to follow the case.
"We met Roxana today for a few minutes, and she is doing well," Reza Saberi told Agence France-Presse. "We are waiting for the judge to make a decision. [The verdict] should come out in a week. There is always hope. But we don't know what will happen."
Saberi's attorney, Abdolsamad Khorramshai, declined to answer questions about the case. Other lawyers noted that spying charges usually draw sentences of two to 10 years in prison.
"Heavier sentences such as death are usually given only when the accused is also considered to be 'in war against the Islamic system,' " human rights lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani said in an interview, referring to a specific Iranian legal charge, "moharebeh."
It is not clear whether Saberi is accused of moharebeh, because the indictment against her has not been made public.
According to Soltani, who works with Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, cases involving spying often end in acquittal. "It's a form of intimidation, charging people with spying to frighten them and to destroy their image. Many of these spying accusations are not even valid as real charges," said Soltani, who was accused of spying in 2006 but acquitted seven months later.
Iranian officials have arrested other people holding dual nationality and accused them of being U.S. agents and plotting a "soft" revolution like those that unfolded in Georgia and Ukraine, where students and nongovernmental groups, some supported by Western governments, brought about nonviolent change.
Silva Harotonian, an Iranian of Armenian Christian descent, was convicted in January of plotting a soft revolution and sentenced to three years in prison. Harotonian was working for Irex, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that had hired her to organize a health-care exchange program between Iran and the United States.
Jamshidi, the judiciary spokesman, said Harotonian's sentence was upheld by an appeals court. A videotaped confession by her was used recently against two AIDS specialists, Kamiar and Arash Alaei, brothers who were found guilty of participating in an alleged CIA-backed plot and jailed for three and six years, respectively.
Human rights organizations say Harotonian's confession was made under pressure, which Iran denies.
Special correspondent Kay Armin Serjoie in Tehran contributed to this report.