Nobel Peace Laureate Takes Case of U.S. Journalist Convicted in Iran of Spying

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi is taking up the defense of an Iranian American journalist who was sentenced Saturday to eight years in prison for spying for the United States, Ebadi's organization said yesterday.

Ebadi, a human rights lawyer, and her team will initially focus on getting Roxana Saberi, a journalist who worked in Iran for the BBC and U.S.-based National Public Radio, released on bail, associates said.

"Our first priority will be to get Roxana out on bail, so we can prepare her defense for the appeal," Nargess Mohammadi, deputy head of the office of Human Rights Defenders, Ebadi's legal organization, said in an interview. The group was approached by Saberi's father, Reza, who is in Tehran trying to secure the release of his 31-year-old daughter.

The bolstering of Saberi's legal team came as the head of Iran's judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, joined earlier calls by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a fair trial for Saberi. "Different dimensions of this case . . . must be considered at the appeals stage in a careful, quick and fair way," Shahroudi said in a decree to Tehran's top court official, the semiofficial Fars News Agency reported.

Ebadi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 and was the first Muslim woman to receive the honor, is one of Iran's most prominent dissidents. In December, authorities closed down her office, saying it lacked the necessary permits. Since 2000, Ebadi and her attorneys have defended more than 5,000 people free of charge in cases relating to freedom of the press, women's rights and political disputes.

"Her presence as an international figure is very important," Reza Saberi said in an interview. He lauded Ebadi's record and praised her colleagues, who are prominent lawyers in Iran. Abdolsamad Khorramshai, who had defended Saberi since her arrest in January, will remain part of her legal team, Reza Saberi said.

Abdolfattah Soltani, one of Roxana Saberi's new lawyers, said Iranian justice authorities did not allow Saberi to sign legal papers yesterday confirming the addition of lawyers to her defense team.

"It is very saddening that even though the president deems it necessary to write a letter stressing Roxana's rights to defend herself, the prison authorities did not allow our representative to meet her," said Soltani, who in 2006 was convicted of spying. He was acquitted five months later.

U.S. officials, including President Obama, have called for Saberi's release.

Yesterday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi denied any connection between Saberi's arrest and the detention since 2007 of three Iranian diplomats in Iraq by U.S. forces, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported. He called for the speedy release of the diplomats, who are accused of spying and who are being held in Iraq without trial.

Special correspondent Kay Armin Serjoie in Tehran contributed to this report.

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