x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Journalist's lawyer hopeful over appeal

A ruling on sentencing of an Iranian-American imprisoned in Tehran on spying charges is expected this week.

Reza Saberi speaks to the media outside the court in Tehran where his daughter's case was being heard.
Reza Saberi speaks to the media outside the court in Tehran where his daughter's case was being heard.

TEHRAN // An Iranian appeals court yesterday reviewed the case of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi and is expected to announce its ruling within the next seven days, possibly as soon as today, said her lawyer, Abdolsamad Khorramshahi. Mr Khorramshahi said the defence team had been allowed to present Saberi's case "in a favourable atmosphere". Saberi, who was sentenced to eight years in prison by a preliminary court on April 18 on the charges of spying for the United States, has been in jail since she was arrested in January

She was initially arrested reportedly for purchasing alcohol, and later charged with illegally reporting from Iran after her accreditation had expired, before being charged with espionage on April 8. Pale and gaunt-looking and wearing a dark blue chador and white slippers, Saberi 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, according to her father.

"The court adjourned at 2pm today. Roxana and her defence team were granted sufficient time to put forth their defence in a favourable atmosphere. On the basis of the relevant court procedure by-laws and what was announced by the court today, the verdict is to be announced within the next seven days, maybe even as soon as tomorrow," Mr Khorramshahi, the head of Saberi's defence team, said yesterday.

The hearing was held behind closed doors but Reza Saberi, the journalist's father, was allowed to enter the court towards the end of the session, Mr Khorramshahi said. "She looked a little weak but she was in good mental condition during her appeals hearing today," her lawyer said. "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," Mr Saberi told Agence France-Presse.

Iran's official IRNA news agency quoted Ali Reza Jamshidi, a judiciary spokesman, 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. Manouchehr Mottaki, the foreign minister, has said Saberi's appeal would be looked at "with justice and compassion". Saberi's case has become a key issue in the effort to mend Iran-US relations, prompting Barack Obama, the US president, and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to demand that as a US citizen she be freed.

Iran does not recognise dual citizenship and insists that Saberi entered Iran on an Iranian passport and should undergo all the stages of her trials as an Iranian citizen. Any interference from foreign countries is considered as intervention in Iran's internal affairs, the Iranian foreign ministry has said. Some analysts believe a reduction of Saberi's prison term or her acquittal by the appeals court can help to pave the way for direct Iran-US talks and detente between two countries after 30 years of hostility.

"Miss Saberi's case has definitely had a negative impact on the process of Iran-US rapprochement efforts," said Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University. "Those who are against detente between Iran and the US such as [Iranian expatriate] monarchists and Zionist lobbies [in the US] can put President Obama under pressure if Miss Saberi's sentence is not commuted and she remains in jail. They can make him accept that the olive branch he has extended to Iran has been rejected by the Iranian side.

"The atmosphere can improve for future talks between the two countries if the Iranian appeals court commutes Miss Saberi's sentence considerably and the American side shows goodwill by releasing the Iranian diplomats held in Iraq for over two years," said Prof Zibakalam, who hopes Saberi will be freed. Five Iranian diplomats were arrested in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil in Jan 2007 by US forces and have since been held in US detention.

In a rare move last month, Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, asked the Iranian judiciary to provide Saberi with the opportunity to put forth a full defence after Mr Obama expressed his disappointment with Saberi's eight-year sentence. Saberi has lived in Iran since 2003 and reported for the BBC, the US National Public Radio and the ABC News until 2006. Espionage charges were brought against Saberi on April 8 and Iranian authorities said she had confessed to spying for the United States, a charge that Mr Obama called "baseless".

Saberi's father, who wrote an open letter to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in March asking for his daughter's release from prison as a "humanitarian act", has refuted the claims of a confession by his daughter. Saberi is entitled by law to ask for parole after serving one third of the duration of her jail term. This could be quite soon if her sentence is reduced significantly by the appeals court.

msinaiee@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse