Journalist's Sentencing Threatens U.S.-Iran Relations

By Ramin Mostaghim and Jeffrey Fleishman
(c) 2009, Los Angeles Times

TEHRAN, Iran -- An Iranian-American journalist accused of spying for the U.S. was sentenced Saturday by an Iranian court to eight years in prison, a move likely to strain the Obama administration's recent overtures to improve relations with Iran.

Roxana Saberi, 31, who had reported for the BBC and National Public Radio, faced espionage charges during a trial Monday before Iran's Revolutionary Court.

"The eight-year sentence is true. I will appeal the verdict," said Saberi's lawyer, Abdul-Samad Khorramshahi.

It was not known if she was convicted Saturday or after her court appearance.

Saberi, who was arrested nearly three months ago and is being held in Tehran's Evin Prison, could have received as many as 10 years in prison or even the death penalty. She was charged with spying on Iran, in the guise of a journalist, and passing information and documents to U.S. intelligence services.

The U.S. had condemned the accusations against Saberi as "baseless and without foundation."

On Saturday, President Barack Obama said he was "deeply disappointed" by the conviction, a White House spokesman said.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. would "continue to vigorously raise our concerns to the Iranian government. Our thoughts are with her parents and family during this difficult time."

The sentencing followed indications Thursday by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the Islamic Republic wanted to improve relations with the West and would offer proposals to resolve the standoff over his country's nuclear program.

It is uncertain what effect Saberi's case will have on U.S. diplomatic strategy, but it puts pressure on Obama at a time when Iran's influence is growing in the Middle East.

"This is a shocking miscarriage of justice," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.

Saberi grew up in the mid-Western state and was named Miss North Dakota in 1997. Dorgan added in a statement that the "Iranian government has held a secret trial, will not make public any evidence, and sentenced an American citizen to eight years in prison for a crime she didn't commit. I call on the Iranian government to show compassion."

The deputy prosecutor for the Revolutionary Court had told Iran's media that Saberi, who holds dual U.S. and Iranian citizenships, confessed to the charges.

Saberi's father, Reza, who traveled to Iran to visit his daughter and follow the trial, told Agence France-Presse news agency: "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. ... Her denial is documented in her case, but apparently they did not pay attention to it."

In an interview with NPR, Reza Saberi said his daughter wants to go on a hunger strike "to draw the attention of the Iranian authorities who have sentenced her without justifiable cause."

The timing of the sentencing indicated that Iranian politics might be at play, including a move by conservatives to scuttle chances for rapprochement with the U.S. or to use the journalist as a bargaining chip for the U.S. to release Iranian spies held in Iraq.

The verdict is an attempt by Iran to "intimidate the intellectuals and dissidents in the less than two months before the country's elections so that they dare not stick their heads out," said Reza Kaviani, an analyst based in Tehran.

"The heavy sentence against Roxana is a message to all intellectuals. ... I do hope her case will be on the negotiating table (between the U.S. and Iran)."

But Mojtaba Bigdeli, a former spokesman for the Hezbollah Islamic mDipovement in Iran, said: "It's normal for somebody who has violated our law to be sentenced. It has nothing to do with (international) bargaining chips or with President Obama."

Saberi had been living in Tehran for six years. Iranian authorities rescinded her media credentials in 2006, but she continued working on a book and reporting for media outlets.

Her case was taken up by human-rights groups as another sign of shrinking civil liberties and press freedoms under the country's hard-line Islamic government.

In the past, Iran has blamed the U.S. for using journalists to instigate opposition to Ahmadinejad and the nation's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"We are deeply distressed by this harsh and unwarranted sentence," said Vivian Schiller, the chief executive of NPR. "Through her work for NPR over several years, we know her as an established and respected professional journalist. We appeal to all of those who share our concerns to ask that the Iranian authorities show compassion and allow her to return home to the United States immediately with her parents."

^Times special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim reported from Tehran, Iran, and Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman reported from Cairo, Egypt.<

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