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Associated Press, Published April 14 2009

Iran says former Fargo journalist Saberi stands trial behind closed doors

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) – A jailed American journalist charged by Iran with espionage stood trial behind closed doors and a verdict is expected within weeks, Iran’s judiciary spokesman said today.

Roxana Saberi, a 31-year-old dual American-Iranian citizen, was arrested in late January and initially accused of working without press credentials. But an Iranian judge leveled a far more serious allegation against her last week, charging her with spying for the United States.

The U.S. government has been pressing for Saberi’s release and the charges against her and news of her swift trial was a setback _ especially at a time when President Barack Obama has expressed a willingness to talk with Iran after many years of rocky relations under the former Bush administration.

Judiciary spokesman Ali Reza Jamshidi said Saberi was tried Monday in Iran’s Revolutionary Court, which handles national security cases. It was unclear why the trial was moving at such a fast pace _ especially because the charges leveled against her were so serious.

"Yesterday, the first trial session was held. She presented her final defense. The court will issue its verdict within the next two to three weeks," Jamshidi told reporters.

Her parents, who traveled to Iran in a bid to help win their daughter’s release, and her lawyer could not immediately be reached today for comment.

Saberi, a former Miss North Dakota and former KVLY TV reporter who grew up in Fargo, has been living in Iran for the last six years, working as a freelance reporter for organizations including National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corp.

An Iranian investigative judge involved in the case told Iranian state TV has said Saberi had passed classified information to U.S. intelligence services but didn’t provide further details.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said last week the United States was "deeply concerned" about the espionage charges, which the department described as "baseless."

Jamshidi criticized the U.S. today for saying Saberi was innocent and calling for her release. "That a government expresses an opinion without seeing the indictment is laughable," he told a press conference.

Saberi’s parents, who live in Fargo, visited their daughter last week in Evin prison, a facility north of Tehran that is well-known for holding political prisoners. The couple met Saberi for 30 minutes _ the first time they had spoken to her since she called them on Feb. 10 to say she had been arrested.

Her father, Iranian-born Reza Saberi, said he would stay in Iran until his daughter was freed. He has said his daughter was finishing a book on Iran and had planned to return to the United States this year.

Human rights groups have repeatedly criticized Iran for arresting journalists and suppressing freedom of speech. The government has arrested several Iranian-Americans in the past few years, citing alleged attempts to overthrow its Islamic government through what it calls a "soft revolution."

In a separate case, an Iranian appeals court upheld a three-year prison sentence for an Iranian woman of Armenian descent who worked in Iran for the Washington-based International Research & Exchanges Board, Jamshidi said Tuesday.

Silva Harotonian was arrested in June and sentenced to three years in prison in January. The United States had called on Iran to release Harotonian and says her conviction on charges of trying to overthrow the Iranian government are "baseless." Her employer and family say she’s an administrative assistant and not a political activist.

The U.S. broke off diplomatic relations with Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by hard-line students.

Tensions have been high in recent years between the two countries over U.S. accusations that Iran is secretly seeking to develop nuclear weapons and providing weapons to Shiite militants in Iraq. Iran denies both charges.

Obama has said his administration is looking for opportunities to open direct talks with Iran and has pledged to rethink Washington’s relationship with its longtime adversary. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded by saying Iran would welcome talks with the U.S. _ but only if there was mutual respect.

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