TEHRAN,Iran – President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said an American journalist sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of spying for the U.S. should be allowed to offer a full defense at her appeal, the state news agency reported Sunday.
The statement 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 will appeal.
Ahmadinejad instructed chief Tehran prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi 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 IRNA state news agency quoted the president as saying.
Saberi’s case has been an irritant in U.S.-Iran relations at a time when President Barack Obama is offering to start a dialogue to break a 30-year-old diplomatic deadlock. 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.
The White House said Saturday that Obama was “deeply disappointed” by Saberi’s conviction. The U.S. has called the charges baseless and said Iran would gain U.S. good will if it “responded in a positive way” to the case.
Iran has released few details about the charges. 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 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 the culture and people of Iran, and hoped to finish it and return to the United States this year.
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. Because Saberi’s father is Iranian, she received Iranian citizenship.
Her father, Reza Saberi, is in Iran and has said his daughter was not 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 her trial only lasted about 15 minutes.
“The trial of course was not a real trial,” her father told CNN. “A few minutes until the trial, she still didn’t know there was a trial,” he added. “It was a mock trial.”
On Saturday, the father told NPR that his daughter was convicted Wednesday, two days after she appeared for trial. He said the court waited until Saturday to inform lawyers of its decision. Her father was not allowed into the courtroom to see his daughter, whom he described as “quite depressed.”
Saberi’s case has been a point of friction between the U.S. and Iran at a time when Obama has said he wants to engage in talks on Tehran’s nuclear program and other issues — a departure from the tough talk of the Bush administration.
One Iranian analyst said Ahmadinejad’s comments were politically motivated and Iran could be using Saberi’s case to gain leverage with the United States as it seeks better relations.
“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 the former President George W. Bush, who labeled Iran as part of the so-called “Axis of Evil” along with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and North Korea.
Iran has been mostly lukewarm to the Obama administration’s overtures until Ahmadinejad’s comment last week that he was ready for a new start.
But Iran’s judiciary is dominated by hard-liners, who some analysts say are trying to derail efforts to improve U.S.-Iran relations.
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.
Ahmadinejad also urged the chief Tehran prosecutor to allow jailed Canadian-Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan the right to fully defend himself. Derakhshan, who has made trips to Israel and blogged in both English and Farsi, has been in prison since November on charges of insulting religious figures. He helped ignite the blog boom in Iran in 2001 by posting simple instructions online on how to create sites in Farsi.
There was no immediate response from the prosecutor, and under Iranian law, the president has no direct authority over the judiciary.