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Iran sentences U.S. journalist to 8 years

  • Story Highlights
  • U.S. secretary of state "deeply disappointed;" vows to "vigorously raise our concerns"
  • Roxana Saberi went on trial earlier this week on charges of spying
  • The journalist, an Iranian-American, has freelanced for NPR, other news agencies
  • Her father, speaking from Tehran, says the verdict will be appealed
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TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- A U.S. journalist in Iran was sentenced to eight years in prison for espionage, her father, lawyer and news reports said Saturday -- a sentence that prompted denunciation from the United States.

Reports in Iranian media, including an Iranian judiciary source quoted Saturday by the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency, confirmed the sentence of Roxana Saberi, a 31-year-old Iranian-American from North Dakota.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was "deeply disappointed" by the news. "We are working closely with the Swiss Protecting Presence to obtain details about the court's decision, and to ensure her well-being," Clinton said in a statement.

The United States will "continue to vigorously raise our concerns to the Iranian government," Clinton said. "Ms. Saberi was born and raised in the United States, yet chose to travel to the Islamic Republic of Iran due to her desire to learn more about her cultural heritage. Our thoughts are with her parents and family during this difficult time."

Saberi's lawyer confirmed the sentence and vowed an appeal would be launched within 20 days.

"I will definitely appeal the verdict within this period," Abdolsamad Khorramshahi said.

The case has unfolded as the Obama administration has signaled an inclination to engage diplomatically with Iran, America's long-term adversary. The countries have been at odds for years over Iran's nuclear program and Iranian actions and stances in the Middle East, such as the regime's links to Hamas and Hezbollah and its alleged support of insurgents in Iraq.

Saberi has been living in Iran since 2003, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a journalists' advocacy group.

She has freelanced for National Public Radio and other news organizations and was writing a book about Iranian culture. NPR said she also reported for BBC, ABC and Fox.

Her media credentials were revoked in 2006 by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which accredits reporters working for foreign news organizations, CPJ reported.

"According to NPR, Saberi continued to file short news items with government permission," CPJ said.

Saberi was first detained in January, CPJ said, although no formal charges were disclosed.

"She told her family that she was initially held for buying a bottle of wine," CPJ said on its Web site. "A spokesman for Iran's Foreign Ministry said later that Saberi was being detained at Tehran's Evin Prison for reporting without proper accreditation."

Political prisoners are often jailed at the prison, CPJ said.

Word that Saberi was charged with espionage emerged on April 8, CPJ said. Hassan Haddad, deputy public prosecutor, told the Iranian Students News Agency that "without press credentials and under the name of being a reporter, she was carrying out espionage activities."

She appeared before a Revolutionary Court on Monday for a one-day trial that was closed to the public, CPJ said, quoting an Iranian judiciary official.

Her father, Reza Saberi, told NPR on Saturday he believes his daughter was coerced into making damaging statements. He said the verdict was issued Wednesday.

The court, which didn't meet Thursday and Friday, reconvened Saturday. Reza Saberi said his daughter was brought to the court, but he wasn't allowed to enter.

A lawyer later told him she was sentenced to eight years in prison for espionage.

Reza Saberi said his daughter had earlier wanted to go on a hunger strike but she was persuaded not to. However, he said there is a chance she might do so now in light of the verdict.

Reza Saberi said his daughter is "very weak and frail."

"She is quite depressed about this matter and she wants to go on hunger strike. If she does, she's so frail it can be very dangerous to her health."

Others also denounced the verdict.

"Roxana Saberi's trial lacked transparency and we are concerned that she may not have been treated fairly," said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, the CPJ Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. "We call on the Iranian authorities to release her on bail pending her appeal."

Vivian Schiller, NPR's president and chief executive officer, said the network is "deeply distressed by this harsh and unwarranted sentence."

"Saberi has already endured a three-month confinement in Evin Prison, and we are very concerned for her well-being. Through her work for NPR over several years, we know her as an established and respected professional journalist.

"We appeal to all of those who share our concerns to ask that the Iranian authorities show compassion and allow her to return home to the United States immediately with her parents."

North Dakota lawmakers slammed the conviction.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad called the ruling "preposterous," adding that the "charges against her are baseless."

"She was tried in a secret trial without her attorney even being present. That is a travesty of justice."

U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan called the ruling "a shocking miscarriage of justice."

"The Iranian government has held a secret trial, will not make public any evidence, and sentenced an American citizen to eight years in prison for a crime she didn't commit," the Democratic senator said.

U.S. Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-North Dakota, said he was "dismayed at the verdict from the secret trial of Roxana Saberi."

"We know Roxana to be a fine young woman of intelligence and integrity and I hope based on humanitarian considerations she will be allowed to return to the United States.

"I am humbled by the brave efforts of Roxana's parents who traveled from Fargo to Tehran, and I will continue to work closely with them in an effort to secure her release."

Feature Story News, the stringer service that employed Roxana Saberi in Iran, also denounced the action.

Simon Marks, president and chief correspondent, called the conviction a "miscarriage of justice -- or what passes for justice in modern Iran."

"Roxana moved to Iran in February 2003 to offer global audiences balanced, objective coverage of news developments in the Islamic Republic. Since then, she has always honored journalistic principles of the highest professional standard.

"We note that no evidence to support charges of espionage has ever been furnished by the authorities in Iran. We can only conclude that absolutely none exists."

More than 10,000 people signed a CPJ petition calling for due process and her release as soon as possible. CPJ said it handed the petition in March to Iran's Permanent Mission to the the United Nations.

Saberi isn't the only American in peril in Iran.

Earlier this month, at a conference on Afghanistan in Netherlands, Clinton sent a letter to the Iranian delegation asking for information on and the safe release of Saberi Esha Momeni, an Iranian-American student arrested in Iran last October.

Clinton also inquired about Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran in March 2007.

One U.S. senator suggested earlier this year that Iran may be holding Levinson in a bid to exchange him for Iranian officials seized by U.S. troops in Iraq in 2007.

"On several diplomatic occasions when Bob Levinson's name has been brought up to Iranian officials, the standard answer is, 'We don't know anything about that.' But the next thing out of the Iranian officials' mouths are to discuss the matter of the Iranians held by the Americans in Irbil, Iraq," Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, told reporters in February.

"You can draw your own conclusions," he said.

U.S. troops arrested five Iranians accused of being members of an elite Iranian military unit during a January 2007 raid in the Iraqi city of Irbil.

They were accused of supporting Shiite militias in Iraq, but Iran said they were diplomats and accused the United States of violating international law by raiding a consulate.

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