Ali Akbar Dareini and Anna Johnson, Associated Press, Published April 15 2009
Saberi awaits outcome of trial
TEHRAN, Iran – Iran said Tuesday its national security court put an American journalist on trial behind closed doors on allegations she spied for the U.S. – a charge Washington calls baseless.
The unusually swift one-day trial threatened to anger the U.S. at a time when the Obama administration is showing willingness to engage its longtime adversary after many years of rocky relations.
Roxana Saberi, a 31-year-old dual American-Iranian citizen who grew up in Fargo and is a former Miss North Dakota, 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.
“Yesterday, the first trial session was held. She presented her final defense,” judiciary spokesman Ali Reza Jamshidi told reporters. “The court will issue its verdict within the next two to three weeks.”
It was unclear why the trial was moving at such a fast pace – especially because the charges leveled against Saberi were so serious. Under Iranian law, those convicted of spying normally face up to 10 years in prison.
Saberi has been living in Iran for the last six years, working as a freelance reporter for news organizations including National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corp. Her father has said his daughter was finishing a book on Iran and had planned to return to the United States this year.
Her lawyer, Abdolsamad Khorramshahi, said he was not authorized to speak to the media about the trial, which he was permitted to attend.
“I will comment only after the verdict is issued,” he said.
Washington has described the charges as “baseless” and has repeatedly called for Saberi’s release. Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the United States was “deeply concerned” about the espionage charges.
State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Tuesday that the U.S. is committed to getting Saberi released.
“We remain very concerned about her situation,” he said.
But Jamshidi criticized the U.S. for saying Saberi was innocent and calling for her release.
“That a government expresses an opinion without seeing the indictment is laughable,” he told reporters.
One Iran analyst said it was not a coincidence that the charges against Saberi come as Obama is making overtures to Iran.
“There are powerful hard-line factions in Tehran who do their best to torpedo or sabotage efforts to improve (U.S.-Iran) relations because they stand to lose both politically and financially, and I think I would put Roxana’s case in that context,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Since taking office earlier this year, Obama said his administration is looking for opportunities to open direct talks with Iran and has pledged to rethink Washington’s relationship with Tehran. 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. Under former President George W. Bush, relations deteriorated.
Obama’s overtures have drawn lukewarm responses from hard-line Iranian leaders. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – who has the final say on major policy decisions – has criticized Obama, saying he would continue the policies of the Bush administration.
Hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also has said Iran would welcome talks with the U.S. – but only if there was mutual respect. Iranian officials say that means Washington must stop accusing Iran of seeking to build nuclear weapons and supporting terrorism, charges Tehran denies.
Saberi’s jailing also comes months ahead of June’s crucial presidential elections. Ahmadinejad is up for re-election, but his popularity has waned as the economy struggles with high-inflation and unemployment. The race is pitting the hard-liners against reformists – led by a former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi – who support better relations with the U.S.
Sadjadpour said Washington needs to handle the Saberi case delicately.
“The (U.S.) government clearly wants to express its concern. But on the other hand, too much emphasis on her case might not be in the interest of Roxana’s expeditious release because Iran may feel like they do not want to appear to be giving in to U.S. pressure,” he said.
The fact that Saberi has been charged with espionage and stood trial is rare for an American citizen in Iran, even with the poor relations between the two countries.
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.” They were never put on trial and were eventually released from prison.
Iran has released few details about the charges against Saberi. Iranian officials initially said she had been arrested for working in the Islamic Republic without press credentials and she had told her father in a phone conversation that she was arrested after buying a bottle of wine.
Her parents, who traveled to Iran from their home in Fargo in a bid to help win their daughter’s release, could not immediately be reached for comment on Tuesday.
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