Iran Puts U.S. Journalist on Trial for Spying Charges

An Iranian American journalist who has been charged with espionage appeared Monday before a closed-door court in Iran's capital city, Tehran, to speak on her defense.

"Yesterday, the first session of the trial was held and she (Roxana Saberi) was given an opportunity to speak in the court to present her defense," judiciary spokesman Ali Reza Jamshidi told reporters Tuesday.

"I think the verdict will be passed within a couple of weeks," Jamshidi added.

Though Saberi, 31, had been arrested in late January for buying alcohol – which is illegal in Iran – an Iranian judge last week accused her of spying for the United States.

"This accused has been coming and going to certain government circles under the cover of reporter and without a permit," Judge Sohrab Heydarifard told state television Wednesday. "She has perpetrated actions to compile and gather information and documents and transferred them to American intelligence services."

U.S. officials, however, say the charges are "baseless" and have repeatedly called for her release.

At an international conference on Afghanistan in The Hague last month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a letter to Iranian representatives seeking Saberi's release and appealing on behalf of two other U.S. citizens.

Also petitioning for Saberi has been the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, president of the Lutheran World Federation and presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), whose U.S. denomination founded Saberi's alma mater, Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn.

In a letter to the Iranian government shortly after news broke of the espionage allegations, Hanson noted the importance of "the light of truth" in Islamic culture as well as Christianity.

"I understand that your culture and government takes a different approach than our own to the vocation of journalism and reporting," the Lutheran head wrote.

"Our culture has grown to value journalists as agents of truth and to give them latitude for investigation and truth-telling," Hanson continued. "Therefore, in addition to our call to advocate for persons in prison, I am called to advocate for the freedom of journalists who are not engaging in espionage but only trying to discover the truth of a given matter."

Born in the United States and raised by her Iranian father and Japanese mother in Fargo, N.D., Saberi had moved to Iran six years ago to work as a freelance reporter for BBC, NPR, and other media outlets.

Last month, however, Iran's foreign ministry claimed that Saberi's press credentials had been revoked in 2006 and that she had since been working illegally. Her parents, meanwhile, have said that Saberi was writing a book when she was arrested and that she has dual Iranian-U.S. citizenship.

Though the heaviest punishment for espionage is death, sentences of two to ten years are usually what results.

Human rights lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani told The Washington Post that heavier sentences such as death are usually given only when the accused is considered to be "in war against the Islamic system."

"[A spying charge is] a form of intimidation, charging people with spying to frighten them and to destroy their image," he said. "Many of these spying accusations are not even valid as real charges."

A verdict for Saberi is expected to come out even as soon as next week.