Friday, 15 May, 2009

US 'spy' appeal begins

An Iranian court last night started hearing an appeal by US-Iranian reporter Roxana Saberi, who was controversially sentenced last month to eight years in jail on charges of spying for the United States.

Saberi's lawyer Abdolsamad Khoramshahi said after the hearing that the Tehran court is expected to deliver its verdict "this week - within days,'' and voiced optimism over her fate.

He said closed-door session was held in a "good atmosphere - we are hoping that fundamental changes will be made (to the sentence).''

He said he had asked the court to release Saberi on bail, but that "the court has not decided.''

US-born Saberi, 32, was last month sentenced by a revolutionary court in Tehran to an eight-year jail term for spying for Iran's arch-foe the United States, causing deep consternation in Washington and among human rights groups.

She was initially arrested in January reportedly for buying alcohol, an act prohibited in the Islamic republic, and has since been detained in Tehran's notorious Evin prison.

A pale and gaunt-looking Saberi, wearing a dark blue chador and white slippers, was brought to the Tehran courthouse by three guards for the hearing, which lasted about four hours.

Saberi, a former US beauty queen, had launched a hunger strike on April 21 in protest at her sentence, taking in only water or sugared water, but she ended it after about two weeks after being briefly hospitalised in the prison clinic.

The sentence against Saberi was the harshest ever meted out to a dual national on security charges in Iran, and was issued just weeks after US President Barack Obama proposed better ties with Tehran.

"They gave us enough time to present our defence. They also gave enough time to my client to defend herself,'' Khoramshahi told reporters after the hearing wrapped up.

Saberi's father Reza, who was at the courthouse but not inside the courtroom, also voiced optimism about the outcome of the appeal.

"For the time being we cannot judge, but we have lots of hope and we think that they'll give us a better and quicker answer.''

Iran's official IRNA news agency quoted judiciary spokesman Ali Reza Jamshidi as saying he believed the ruling by the appeal court's three-judge panel ``will be fair and lawful.''

"I cannot predict whether Saberi will be acquitted or the same verdict will be upheld,'' he said.

Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki has said that Saberi's appeal would be looked at "with justice and compassion.''

The United States has dismissed the charges against Saberi as baseless and called for her release. Obama has said that he was ``especially concerned'' about Saberi as well as two other US women journalists being detained in North Korea.

Judiciary spokesman Jamshidi brushed off Washington's concerns, saying Saberi's case had "been treated according to law in the preliminary stage.''

"If you want to look at what America says and what other countries want and listen to other governments we have to then put down pen and paper and sit back,'' he said.

Iran, which does not recognise dual nationality, has said Saberi had continued working "illegally'' after her press card was revoked in 2006.

Saberi has reported for US National Public Radio, the BBC and Fox News, and has lived in Iran for the past six years.


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