Monday, April 20, 2009

Jailed journalist is not a spy: Obama

From correspondents in Washington, USA

US President Barack Obama has denied that an Iranian-American journalist is a spy and has demanded her release after she was sentenced to eight years in prison in Iran for espionage.

Reporter Roxana Saberi, 31, was convicted by an Iranian revolutionary court of spying for the United States during a closed-door trial, in a verdict unveiled on Saturday.

"She is an American citizen and I have complete confidence that she was not engaging in any sort of espionage,'' Mr Obama said.

"She was 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.''

Ms Saberi, who has US and Iranian nationality, has been detained in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran since January.

The court ruling comes despite calls by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for Ms Saberi's release and President Barack Obama's diplomatic overtures to Iran.

It is the harshest sentence meted out by an Iranian court to a dual-national on security charges.

Several US-Iranians, including academics, have been detained in recent years on security charges but released after several months behind bars.

US-born Ms Saberi, who is also of Japanese descent, has reported for US-based National Public Radio (NPR), the BBC and Fox News, and had lived in Iran for six years.

In March, foreign ministry spokesman Hassan Ghashghavi said Ms Saberi's press card was revoked in 2006 and since then she had been working in Iran "illegally''.

Last month, Ms Saberi's parents appealed to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for her release, saying she was in a "dangerous'' mental state.

US State Department spokesman Robert Wood branded the Iranian trial "less than transparent'' and repeated his assessment that the charges against her were "baseless''.

Mr Wood added the United States was still trying to confirm details of the case via the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which handles US interests in Iran in the absence of diplomatic relations.

Ms Saberi was initially reported to have been detained for buying alcohol, an illegal act in the Islamic republic.

A website has been set up by her friends and university alumni, and the Committee to Protect Journalists also launched a petition calling for her release.

The website said Ms Saberi was chosen Miss North Dakota in 1997 and was among the top 10 finalists for Miss America the following year.

MS Clinton said she had delivered a letter to the Iranian delegation at an international conference on Afghanistan in The Hague on March 31, seeking Ms Saberi's release and making appeals on behalf of two other US citizens.

Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent, vanished on the Gulf island of Kish two years ago, and student Esha Momeni has been prevented from leaving Iran despite being released from jail last year.

Esha Momeni - a graduate student at California State University - was detained in Tehran on October 15 and released on bail in November, but has since been prevented from leaving the country.

Ghashghavi has denied receiving any letter from US officials asking about the three American citizens.

After three decades of severed diplomatic ties, the Obama administration has called for dialogue with Tehran over its controversial nuclear drive, which Western powers fear could be a cover for efforts to build an atomic bomb.

Agence France-Press-News.Com

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