20 April 2009

Iran convicts former Beauty Queen of spying for U.S.

A former Northwestern University journalism student and a beauty queen working as a reporter in Iran was convicted on espionage charges and sentenced to eight years in prison Saturday.

Roxana Saberi, a 31-year-old dual American-Iranian citizen, was arrested in late January and initially accused of working without press credentials. But earlier this month, an Iranian judge leveled a far more serious allegation, charging Saberi with spying for the United States.
Northwestern Professor Jack Doppelt said he's "sad and incensed" about his former student's conviction.

"It's so hard to understand exactly what's going on. One thing that is clear is she did not commit an act of espionage on behalf of the United States. What is not clear is what this is about," Doppelt said. "It makes me uneasy knowing that she is at the mercy of geopolitics."

Saberi appeared before an Iranian court behind closed doors Monday in an unusually swift one-day trial. Her lawyer said he plans to appeal the verdict.

Saberi, a former Miss North Dakota, had been living in Iran for six years, working as a free-lance reporter for several news organizations, including National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corp.

Doppelt has kept in touch with Saberi, who received a master's in 1999. He said his former student produced "really terrific stories ... mostly about the people of Iran."

"In one sense, she was one of the best mouthpieces [Iranians] have. Iranians are not villainous people, and that was the nature of her stories. Then she gets picked out and demonized. It's a sad, telling irony how international affairs itself attacks its own people."

Iran has released few details about the charges against Saberi. Initially, Iranian officials said she was arrested for working in Iran without press credentials; she told her father she was arrested after buying a bottle of wine.

Her father, Reza Saberi, told NPR that his daughter had been coerced into statements that she later retracted. "She is quite depressed," he said.

An Iranian investigative judge involved in the case charged that Saberi was passing classified information to U.S. intelligence services.

The United States severed diplomatic relations with Iran after its 1979 Islamic revolution and takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

Saberi's conviction marked the first time Iran has found an American journalist guilty of spying, and it was unclear how the verdict would affect recent overtures by the Obama administration for better relations.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement she's "deeply disappointed" in Saberi's sentence, and the United States will "vigorously raise our concerns" with Iran's government.

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