New diplomatic crisis for US over Iran's jailing of Roxana Saberi
Richard Beeston – Times Online April 19, 2009
The fate of a young American journalist sentenced to eight years for spying against Iran has plunged Washington into a fresh crisis with Tehran, damaging hopes for Barack Obama's reconciliation bid with the Islamic regime.
Roxana Saberi, 30, a dual American-Iranian national from North Dakota, was found guilty of espionage in a secret court hearing and given the lengthy sentence to be served in Tehran's notorious Evin prison.
Miss Saberi, who worked as a freelance journalist for the BBC and National Public Radio, was initially arrested in January for having a bottle of wine. The authorities then said that she was working illegally as a journalist without accreditation. Last week the authorities accused her of espionage, a crime punishable by death. After a brief court hearing behind closed doors, Abdolsamad Khorramshahi, her lawyer, announced yesterdayy that she had been found guilty and sentenced. He said that he would appeal the verdict.
"Roxana said in court that her earlier confessions were not true and she told me she had been tricked into believing that she would be released if she cooperated," he said. "Her denial is documented in her case but apparently they did not pay attention to it."
Her father, Reza Saberi, said that she had been coerced into making a confession. "She is quite depressed about this matter and she wants to go on a hunger strike. And if she does, she is so frail it can be very dangerous for her health."
Western diplomats in Tehran and Iranian reformers were deeply sceptical about the trial, suggesting that it could be politically-motivated. There are suspicions that hardliners in the regime want to use the case to torpedo the peace initiative announced last month by President Obama in a broadcast coinciding with the Iranian New Year. Another interpretation is that Iran wants a bargaining chip to use with the Americans.
"If someone had committed the crimes that she (Saberi) has been accused of and they had the evidence they would not hesitate to make it public," said one Iranian reformist politician. "If it is not public then I am doubtful. This is a political game."
Certainly the case will make it much harder for Mr Obama to patch up relations with Iran, ruptured 30 years ago during the Iranian revolution when student activists seized the US embassy in Tehran and held American diplomats hostage for more than a year.
A White House spokesman said that the President was "deeply disappointed" by the sentence passed on Miss Saberi. "What we think is important is that the situation be remedied," said the spokesman. "We will continue to express the concerns that we have." Washington is expected to make its position clear to the Iranians via the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which represents US interests.
Relations between the two countries are likely to be strained further this week in Geneva, where President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is one of the most prominent and controversial leaders attending a United Nations conference on racism.
The Iranian government has made it clear that Mr Ahmadinejad wants the conference, which opens tomorrow, to focus on Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. America and other Western countries are boycotting the event because they fear that it will turn into an anti-Israel forum.
A spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry denounced the conference as a "tragic farce".
"Officially it is aimed at denouncing racism, but it has invited a Holocaust denier (Ahmadinejad) who has called for the destruction of Israel," he said.
Last updated 20/04/2009