Lawyer Says Reporter Had Iran Document

The case against Roxana Saberi, the Iranian-American journalist who was convicted here on charges of spying and then released this week on appeal, was based on her possession of a classified document and on trips she made to Israel, one of her lawyers said in an interview on Wednesday.

The document, a 2003 report on the planned United States invasion of Iraq, was prepared by a research organization affiliated with the office of the Iranian president at the time, Mohammad Khatami, the lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht, said.

He said that Ms. Saberi found the article on a desk in the offices of the Expediency Council, a group of senior figures who advise the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. She worked there as a translator, putting English-language articles on its Web site.

The Interior Ministry interrogators who questioned Ms. Saberi thought that the article was confidential or secret at the time she obtained it, Mr. Nikbakht said, but it was actually only classified, which is not as restricted. In the intervening years, he said, it was declassified. He said the interrogators’ suspicions were also raised by Ms. Saberi’s possession of some internal papers from a conservative political party as well as by the trips to Israel.

Ms. Saberi, 32, was arrested in January for buying wine, an act that is illegal in Iran, and was later charged with working without press credentials, which were revoked in 2006. In April she was convicted on charges of spying for Washington and sentenced to eight years in prison.

She had been living and working in Iran since 2003, reporting on a variety of issues for news organizations, including National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corporation. While she did travel to Iraq in the early years of the war, she does not seem to have reported on the American invasion for the BBC.
An NPR spokeswoman, Dana Davis Rehm, said Ms. Saberi did not cover the American invasion of Iraq for the network, or do background work for it on that subject. “We are completely confident that the documents Roxana possessed are not relevant to her work for NPR,” Ms. Rehm said. She said Ms. Saberi did not travel to Israel on behalf of NPR.

Mr. Nikbakht said that Ms. Saberi made two trips to Israel in 2006, using her Iranian passport to get as far as Syria or Lebanon and then her American passport to go to Israel. Iranians are not permitted to travel to Israel. It was those trips that first caught the attention of the Intelligence Ministry, he said.

“You have to put yourself in the mind-set of the intelligence people,” Mr. Nikbakht said. “When they put all this together they came up with the charges against her. She traveled to Israel and they became suspicious that she was taking confidential documents for the Americans.”

Mr. Nikbakht said that he and another lawyer, Abdolsamad Khoramshahi, secured her release by arguing that the documents were not classified or confidential, and that Iran and the United States were not at war. Therefore, he contended, the charges against her could not amount to spying.

Ms. Saberi’s arrest followed President Obama’s overture to Iran, the first from an American president since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the taking of American hostages at the United States Embassy. American officials, including Mr. Obama, had dismissed the charges against her as politically motivated and urged her release.

Political commentators here said her release reflected a consensus among the Iranian authorities about sending a signal to the United States that a thaw in relations might be possible. “The court played a role in her release,” said Alireza Rajaee, a political analyst in Tehran. “But we cannot deny the hard-liners’ willingness to let her go.”

During her appeal, Ms. Saberi admitted copying the article on the Iraq invasion and said that an “admirer” at the conservative political party had provided her with the party’s internal papers. No charges were brought against her for possessing those papers.

“We argued that none of the documents were secret or confidential because they did not bear the title,” Mr. Nikbakht said. “Ms. Saberi also said she had never used any of them.” He said she had told the court that she was collecting the information for her book on “the nature of power in Iran,” and that she had traveled to Israel to look for a job.

Mr. Nikbakht said that Ms. Saberi had told the judges she was so terrified after her arrest that she made up a story, hoping it would help her get out of jail. “She told them that a former U.S. official had proposed to her to work for the C.I.A. during one of her trips to Washington, but she said she did not take it seriously,” Mr. Nikbakht said.

While the court dismissed the spying charges, it did give Ms. Saberi a suspended two-year sentence and barred her from practicing journalism in Iran for five years.

She met briefly in Tehran with reporters on Tuesday and said she had no immediate plans.

Mark Landler contributed reporting from Washington.

Original source: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/14/world/middleeast/14iran.html?ref=global-home