By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 19, 2009
An Iranian American journalist has been sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of spying for the United States after a trial held behind closed doors, her attorney and Iranian officials said Saturday.
The details of the accusations against Roxana Saberi, who holds U.S. and Iranian citizenship, are unknown. In the past, Iranian officials have arrested others with dual nationality, accusing them of being U.S. agents. Saberi's sentence, however, is the harshest meted out by an Iranian court to a dual national on security charges.
Her attorney, Abdolsamad Khorramshai, said he would appeal but declined to comment further.
The verdict was announced after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called for Saberi's release and President Obama made diplomatic overtures to Iran after three decades of severed ties. The United States has said the accusations against Saberi are baseless.
Obama "is deeply disappointed at this news," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in Trinidad and Tobago, where the president and Clinton are attending the Summit of the Americas. "His thoughts and prayers are with her and her family. And I think we will continue to express the concerns that we have through the Swiss to the Iranian government, and make sure they underscore and understand our deep concern for these actions."
An Iranian official defended the verdict and said the United States must stop interfering in Iran's internal affairs.
"The U.S. says it's extending a hand of friendship while at the same time it sends spies such as Ms. Saberi to Iran," Ali Akbar Javanfekr, media adviser to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said in an interview. "The U.S. government must change its contradictory behavior and take a truthful and clear and defined position. This is necessary for any new developments."
Saberi's father, Reza Saberi, told U.S.-based National Public Radio that his daughter had been coerced into making incriminating statements, which she later retracted.
"She was deceived. Roxana said in court that her earlier confessions were not true, and she told me she had been tricked into believing that she would be released if she cooperated," he told Agence France-Presse.
"It's a very heavy sentence," said human rights lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani. "Few cases have been given such harsh sentences."
According to Soltani, who works with Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, Saberi could be acquitted by another court. "If it is an unbiased court, there will be high hopes for Saberi's case to be acquitted," said Soltani, who was accused of spying in 2005 but acquitted seven months later.
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, NPR and other news organizations. She remained in Iran and, according to her parents, is writing a book.
Iranian officials often accuse the United States and Britain of sending spies to Iran with the aim of plotting a "soft" revolution, such as those that unfolded in Georgia and Ukraine, where students and nongovernmental groups, some supported by Western governments, brought about nonviolent change. Since 2004, Iran has detained several people, including dual nationals, on suspicion of plotting such revolutions.
In 1953, the CIA, by bribing local generals and mobs, orchestrated a coup against Iran's democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, which led to nearly three decades of autocratic rule by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Saberi was born in the United States, but Iranian law does not recognize her U.S. nationality. Iran regards her as an Iranian who engaged in activities for foreign news media.
"Saberi's Iranian nationality has been proven for the judge," judiciary spokesman Ali Reza Jamshidi said, according to the semiofficial Fars News Agency. "That is a main issue for the court, as having Iranian nationality is necessary for trying Iranians in Iranian courts. As a result, the court procedure has started and will continue."
Special correspondent Kay Armin Serjoie in Tehran contributed to this report.