TEHRAN, Iran – Iran’s president said Sunday that an American journalist convicted of spying for the U.S. should be allowed to offer a full defense during her appeal, a day after she was sentenced to eight years in prison.
The message was a sign that Iran’s leadership does not want the case to derail moves toward a dialogue with the Obama administration to break a 30-year diplomatic deadlock.
Hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent a letter to Tehran’s chief prosecutor instructing him to personally ensure that “suspects be given all their rights to defend themselves” against the charges. “Prepare for the court proceedings … to observe and apply justice precisely,” the state news agency IRNA quoted him as saying.
The letter came a day after Iran announced the conviction and sentence for Roxana Saberi, a 31-year-old dual American-Iranian citizen. It was the first time Iran has found an American journalist guilty of espionage, and her lawyer said he’ll appeal.
President Barack Obama said Sunday he was “gravely concerned” about Saberi’s safety and well-being and was confident she wasn’t involved in espionage. The U.S. has called the charges baseless and said Iran would gain U.S. goodwill if it “responded in a positive way” to the case.
“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 to be released,” Obama said.
Saberi’s case has been an irritant in U.S.-Iran relations at a time when Obama is offering to start a dialogue between the longtime adversaries. A few days before her sentence was announced, Ahmadinejad gave the clearest signal yet that Iran, too, was ready for a new relationship with the U.S.
Ahmadinejad’s letter also referred to Canadian-Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan, who has been in an Iranian prison since November on charges of insulting religious figures. Ahmadinejad requested the prosecutor also ensure that he be allowed to fully defend himself, IRNA reported.
Iran has released few details about the charges against the two. Saberi, who was born in Fargo, North Dakota, was arrested in January and initially accused of working without press credentials. But earlier this month, an Iranian judge leveled a more serious allegation that she was passing classified information to U.S. intelligence services.
She told her father in a phone conversation that she was arrested after buying a bottle of wine. Her father said she had been working on a book about Iranian culture and hoped to finish it and return to the U.S. this year.
Saberi, who was 1997 Miss North Dakota, had been living in Iran for six years and worked as a freelance reporter for news organizations including National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corp. Because Saberi’s father was born in Iran, she received Iranian citizenship.
Her parents, who live in Fargo, traveled to Iran to seek her release. Her father, Reza Saberi, has said his daughter wasn’t allowed a proper defense during her one-day trial behind closed doors a week ago. He said no evidence has been made public, and his daughter was tricked into making incriminating statements by officials who told her they would free her if she did.
He told CNN on Sunday that her trial lasted only 15 minutes. “It was a mock trial,” he said.
One Iranian analyst said Ahmadinejad’s letter was politically motivated and suggested Iran could be using Saberi’s case to gain leverage with the U.S.
“Iran can use Saberi’s case as a bargaining card in possible negotiations with the U.S.,” said analyst Saeed Leilaz.
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 former President George W. Bush, who labeled Iran as part of the so-called “Axis of Evil.”