Iran Puts Journalist On Trial For Spying For The U.S.

Iran's judiciary spokesman says imprisoned journalist Roxana Saberi has been tried behind closed doors on espionage charges. A verdict is expected within two to three weeks. Saberi, an Iranian-American, is accused of spying for the U.S. BBC correspondent Jon Leyne talks with Steve Inskeep about the proceeding.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's get more now about the trial of an American journalist in Iran. Roxana Saberi of North Dakota is charged with spying for the United States. A conviction could result in the death penalty. Among other news organizations, she's done work for National Public Radio. We're going now to the BBC's Jon Leyne. He's covering this story in Tehran. Mr. Leyne, welcome to the program.

Mr. JON LEYNE (BBC): Good morning.

INSKEEP: We said on trial. In America, that means you've got a judge, you may have a jury, probably a public proceeding. But what's it mean to be on trial in Iran for espionage?

Mr. LEYNE: Well, we're not allowed access. It's a closed trial. It's called the Revolutionary Court, and it's a sort of hearing they use to try these national security cases. We're not allowed in. We can't see what happens. But I rather doubt there's any jury there, for sure.

INSKEEP: OK, Revolutionary Court. So it's a judge or a number of judges, or is the process not known at all?

Mr. LEYNE: I certainly wouldn't know it. I don't know if they have the same process each time. But it's a secret procedure, so we don't get watch it.

INSKEEP: Now, I want to ask about the way that this case has evolved. When Roxana Saberi was first - when it was first revealed by her father that she'd been arrested some weeks before, there was mention that she'd been caught with a bottle of alcohol, which would be illegal in Iran. Then we heard claims that she'd been working without a proper press credential. And now it is actually a spy trial. Is it normal for a case like this to escalate in this way?

Mr. LEYNE: It's certainly interesting. And I certainly have read commentators - I mean, it's not for me to talk in too much detail about why and how this has progressed. But I think I've read commentators in the United States who've said it really indicates perhaps this is the victim of some political tussling behind the scenes.

I'm sure the Iranian authorities will say simply that they've got more information and it's developed as a result of that. But I think the suspicion from your side of the water will be that perhaps there's been some tussling behind the scenes, which has caused this case to evolve in certain directions.

INSKEEP: Do you mean tussling between Americans like Saberi's father, who's trying to get her released - father and mother - or do you mean tussling within the government of Iran itself over what to do with cases like this, particularly at a sensitive moment with relations with the United States?

Mr. LEYNE: Well, I think, yes. The point about this is either what has happened is that the case simply evolved as they got more evidence. And I'm sure that's what the Iranians will say if asked. Or it's possible that this case is a result of battles within Iran, within the administration. People perhaps wanting to use it for political motivations and bring it forward, at this time, obviously, with evolving relations between Iran and the United States.

INSKEEP: How much attention have Roxana Saberi's parents received since they went to Iran some days ago to try to win the release of their daughter?

Mr. LEYNE: I haven't seen any coverage of this case here in Iran. That's not to say there hasn't been any. But so far as I've seen, there's just been intermittent reports on some of the semiofficial Web sites they have here. Certainly I don't think they've given interviews to the media here - although I understand they have spoken, the parents, to a couple of media outlets in the United States.

INSKEEP: And do Iranians, either in the media or in official circles or just in conversations you have, connect this case in any way with the ongoing discussion of some kind of talks between the United States and Iran?

Mr. LEYNE: Again, I don't think Iranians are hugely aware of what's going on in this case. It's not been publicized in the official media here. I think certainly, Western analysts will certainly draw that conclusion that perhaps it's being brought forward as a reaction perhaps to President Obama's recent overtures.

I mean, if there were a political motivation - and I say, it's not for me to say there is - but if there were a political motivation, clearly this would be a way of either sabotaging any kind of warming relations or at least bring on some kind of trial of strength through the United States in this case.

INSKEEP: OK. That's the BBC's Jon Leyne in Tehran. You're listening to NPR News.

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