Saturday, April 18, 2009

Iran convicts US journalist of spying

An American journalist jailed in Iran has been convicted of spying and sentenced to eight years in prison, her lawyer said Saturday, dashing any hopes for her quick release.

The verdict was the first time Iran has found an American journalist guilty of spying, and it was unclear how the conviction would affect recent overtures by the Obama administration for better relations and engagement with Washington's longtime adversary.

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

She appeared before an Iranian court behind closed doors on Monday in an unusually swift one-day trial. The Fargo, North Dakota native had been living in Iran for six years and had worked as a freelance reporter for several news organizations including National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corp.

"Saberi has been sentenced to eight years in jail. I'll definitely appeal the verdict," lawyer Abdolsamad Khorramshahi told The Associated Press. It was not immediately known when she was convicted.

The United States has called the charges against Saberi baseless and has demanded her release, and the conviction and prison sentence could put strains on efforts to improve ties.

President Barack Obama has said it wants to engage Iran in talks on its nuclear program and other issues — a departure from the tough talk of the Bush administration.

Iran has been mostly lukewarm to the idea, but on Thursday Iran's hard-line president gave the clearest signal yet that the Islamic Republic was also willing to start a new relationship with Washington.

In a speech Wednesday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran was preparing new proposals aimed at breaking an impasse with the West over its nuclear program.

But it was uncertain how Washington would react to Saberi's conviction. On Thursday, the State Department said Saberi's jailing was not helpful and that Iran would gain U.S. good will if it "responded in a positive way" to the case.

The United States severed diplomatic relations with Iran after its 1979 Islamic revolution and takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

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." But 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.

An Iranian investigative judge involved in the case charged that Saberi was passing classified information to U.S. intelligence services.

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 Saturday.