By Thomas Erdbrink
(c) 2009, The Washington Post
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 lawyer 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 dual national on security charges.
Her lawyer, Abdolsamad Khorramshahi, said he would appeal but declined to comment further.
The verdict came 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.
On Saturday, Clinton issued a statement saying she was "deeply disappointed" by the sentence and that U.S. officials "will continue to vigorously raise our concerns to the Iranian government."
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 Reza Javanfekr, President Mahmoud Ahmaidjenajd's press adviser, 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 National Public Radio that his daughter had been coerced into making statements that 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 and human rights lawyer 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 2006 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, National Public Radio 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 like those that unfolded in Georgia and Ukraine, where students and nongovernmental groups, some supported by Western governments, brought about nonviolent change.
Since 2004, several people, including dual nationals, have been detained and accused 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.
Iranian law does not recognize Saberi's U.S. nationality. Legally, she is regarded in Iran as an Iranian 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."