Courtesy of Reza Saberi
Roxana Saberi poses with schoolchildren in Iran.
Roxana Saberi poses with schoolchildren in Iran. Courtesy of Reza Saberi
President Obama says he's deeply concerned about the safety and well-being of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi, who was sentenced by an Iranian court Saturday to eight years in prison for espionage. He urged Tehran to free her, saying he is confident she was not involved in spying. Saberi, who freelanced for several news organizations, including NPR, was arrested in January.
Iran urged Obama on Monday not to comment on the case before learning the details.
"Obviously, I'm gravely concerned with her safety and well-being," Obama told a news conference over the weekend in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, where he was attending the fifth Summit of the Americas.
"We are working to make sure that she is properly treated and to get information about the disposition of her case. She is an American citizen, and I have complete confidence that she was not engaging in any sort of espionage," he added. "She is an Iranian-American who was interested in the country which her family came from, and it is appropriate for her to be treated as such and be released."
He said Washington would be in touch with Tehran about the case through Swiss intermediaries.
Iran's official news agency says President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has urged the prosecution to ensure the American journalist convicted of spying for the U.S. be allowed to offer a full defense during her appeal.
Iran said Saturday that Saberi, a 31-year-old dual American-Iranian citizen, had been convicted of spying and sentenced to eight years in prison. Her lawyer has said he will appeal.
The journalist's Iranian-born father, Reza Saberi, told National Public Radio on Saturday that his daughter was not allowed a proper defense during her one-day trial behind closed doors a week ago. He told NPR that his daughter was tricked into making incriminating statements by officials who told her they would free her if she did.
It was the first time Iran has found an American journalist guilty of espionage — a crime that can carry the death penalty.
Saberi 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.
The Fargo, N.D., 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 BBC.
Reza Saberi told NPR that his daughter was convicted Wednesday, two days after she appeared before an Iranian court in an unusually swift one-day closed-door trial. The court waited until Saturday to announce its decision to the lawyers, he said.
Saberi's father is in Iran but was not allowed into the courtroom to see his daughter, whom he described as "quite depressed." He said she denied the incriminating statements she made when she realized she had been tricked, but "apparently, in the case they didn't consider her denial."
Saberi's lawyer, Abdolsamad Khorramshahi, told The Associated Press he would "definitely appeal the verdict."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States was working with Swiss diplomats in Iran to get details about the court's decision and to ensure Saberi's well-being. She said in a statement that the United States will "vigorously raise our concerns" with the Iranian government.
The United States has called the charges against Saberi baseless, and the State Department said Thursday that Iran would gain the good will of the U.S. if it "responded in a positive way" to the case.
Obama has said he 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 overtures, but Iran's hard-line president gave the clearest signal yet on Wednesday that the Islamic Republic was also willing to start a new relationship with Washington.
In a speech, Ahmadinejad said Iran was preparing new proposals aimed at breaking an impasse with the West over its nuclear program.
But Iran's judiciary is dominated by hard-liners who some analysts say are trying to derail efforts to improve U.S.-Iran relations.
The United States severed diplomatic relations with Iran after its 1979 Islamic revolution and takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Relations deteriorated further under the former President George W. Bush, who labeled Iran as part of the so-called Axis of Evil along with North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
Saberi's conviction comes about two months ahead of key presidential elections in June that are pitting hard-liners against reformists who support better relations with the United States. Ahmadinejad is seeking re-election, but the hard-liner's popularity has waned as Iran's economy struggles with high inflation and unemployment.
Some conservative Iranian lawmakers played down Saberi's conviction, saying the verdict would not affect any ongoing efforts to build trust between the United States and Iran.
"Although there is a wall of mistrust between Iran and the United States, the judicial verdict won't affect possible future talks between the two countries. The verdict is based on evidence," said lawmaker Hosseini Sobhaninia.
Saberi's father disagreed, telling NPR, "I don't think they have any evidence, and I haven't heard any evidence that they have made public."
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.
"The Saberi case is the latest example of how Iranian authorities arbitrarily use spying charges to arrest journalists and tighten the gag on free expression," said Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.
Meanwhile, NPR CEO Vivian Schiller said in a statement that NPR was "deeply distressed by this harsh and unwarranted sentence."
Iran has released few details about the charges against Saberi. Iranian officials initially said she had been arrested for working in Iran 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 later told state TV that Saberi was passing classified information to U.S. intelligence services.
Saberi's father has said his daughter, who was Miss North Dakota in 1997, had been working on a book about the culture and people of Iran, and hoped to finish it and return to the United States this year.
Wire reports contributed to this story.