- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

TEHRAN, IRAN (AP) - An American journalist jailed in Iran and charged with espionage faced a national security court in a one-day trial behind closed doors and a verdict is expected within weeks, the country’s judiciary spokesman said Tuesday.

The unusually swift trial in Iran’s Revolutionary Court comes as the United States has publicly pressed for Roxana Saberi ‘s release.

The 31-year-old dual American-Iranian citizen was arrested in late January and initially accused of working without press credentials. But an Iranian judge leveled a far more serious allegation against her last week, charging her with spying for the United States.

“Yesterday, the first trial session was held. She presented her final defense,” judiciary spokesman Ali Reza Jamshidi told reporters. “The court will issue its verdict within the next two to three weeks.”

The U.S. government has repeatedly called for Saberi’s release and the charges against her and news of her trial were a setback _ especially at a time when President Barack Obama has expressed a willingness to talk with Iran after many years of rocky relations under the former Bush administration.

It was unclear why the trial was moving at such a fast pace _ especially because the charges leveled against Saberi were so serious. Under Iranian law, those convicted of spying normally face up to 10 years in prison.

Saberi’s lawyer, Abdolsamad Khorramshahi, said he was not authorized to speak to the media about the trial, which he was permitted to attend. “I will comment only after the verdict is issued,” he told The Associated Press.

Her parents, who traveled to Iran in a bid to help win their daughter’s release, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Saberi, who grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, has been living in Iran for the last six years, working as a freelance reporter for organizations including National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corp.

An Iranian investigative judge involved in the case has alleged Saberi passed classified information to U.S. intelligence services but did not provide further details.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said last week the United States was “deeply concerned” about the espionage charges, which the department described as “baseless.”

Jamshidi criticized the U.S. on Tuesday for saying Saberi was innocent and calling for her release.

“That a government expresses an opinion without seeing the indictment is laughable,” he told a news conference.

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.” They were not charged with espionage and were eventually released from prison.

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said it was no coincidence that the case against Saberi comes as Obama is making overtures to Iran.

“There are powerful hard-line factions in Tehran who do their best to torpedo or sabotage efforts to improve (U.S.-Iran) relations because they stand to lose both politically and financially, and I think I would put Roxana’s case in that context,” Sadjadpour said.

“I don’t think for a second that Iranian authorities actually believe the charges leveled against her,” he said.

Saberi’s parents, who live in Fargo, visited their daughter last week in Evin prison, a facility north of Tehran that is well-known for holding political prisoners. The couple met Saberi for 30 minutes _ the first time they had spoken to her since she called them on Feb. 10 to say she had been arrested.

Her father, Iranian-born Reza Saberi, said he would stay in Iran until his daughter was freed. He has said his daughter was finishing a book on Iran and had planned to return to the United States this year.

In a separate case, an Iranian appeals court upheld a three-year prison sentence for an Iranian woman of Armenian descent who worked in Iran for the Washington-based International Research & Exchanges Board, Jamshidi said Tuesday.

Silva Harotonian was arrested in June and sentenced in January. The United States had called on Iran to release Harotonian and says her conviction on charges of trying to overthrow the Iranian government are also “baseless.” Her employer and family say she is an administrative assistant, not a political activist.

The U.S. broke off diplomatic relations with Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by hard-line students.

Tensions have been high in recent years over U.S. accusations that Iran is secretly seeking to develop nuclear weapons and providing weapons to Shiite militants in Iraq. Iran denies both charges.

Obama has said his administration is looking for opportunities to open direct talks with Iran and has pledged to rethink Washington’s relationship with its longtime adversary. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded by saying Iran would welcome talks with the U.S. _ but only if there is mutual respect.

_____

Associated Press Writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran and Anna Johnson in Cairo contributed to this report.

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