Video: Obama: Jailed U.S. journalist not a spy

updated 4/19/2009 1:43:36 PM ET 2009-04-19T17:43:36

President Barack Obama said he's "gravely concerned" about the safety and well-being of a U.S. journalist jailed in Iran. He's confident she is not involved in espionage against Tehran.

At the Summit of the Americas, Obama said Sunday that he's working to ensure the safety of Roxana Saberi, a 31-year-old dual American-Iranian citizen. She was sentenced to eight years in an Iranian prison on charges of spying for the United States.

Saberi's case has been an irritant in U.S.-Iran relations at a time when Obama is offering to start a dialogue.

Meanwhile, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the journalist should be allowed to offer a full defense at her appeal, the state news agency reported Sunday.

Lawyer planning appeal
The statement came a day after Iran announced the conviction and sentence for Roxana Saberi, a 31-year-old dual American-Iranian citizen. It was the first time Iran has found an American journalist guilty of espionage and her lawyer said he will appeal.

Ahmadinejad instructed chief Tehran prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi to personally ensure that "suspects be given all their rights to defend themselves" against the charges. "Prepare for the court proceedings ... to observe and apply justice precisely," the IRNA state news agency quoted the president as saying.

A few days before her sentence was announced, Ahmadinejad gave the clearest signal yet that Iran too was ready for a new relationship with the U.S.

The White House said Saturday that Obama was "deeply disappointed" by Saberi's conviction. The U.S. has called the charges baseless and said Iran would gain U.S. good will if it "responded in a positive way" to the case.

Few details about charges
Iran has released few details about the charges. Saberi 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 that she was passing classified information to U.S. intelligence services.

She told her father in a phone conversation that she was arrested after buying a bottle of wine. Her father said she had been working on a book about the culture and people of Iran, and hoped to finish it and return to the United States this year.

The Fargo, North Dakota native had been living in Iran for six years and had worked as a freelance reporter for several news organizations including National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corp. Because Saberi's father is Iranian, she received Iranian citizenship.

Her father, Reza Saberi, is in Iran and has said his daughter was not allowed a proper defense during her one-day trial behind closed doors a week ago. He said no evidence has been made public and his daughter was tricked into making incriminating statements by officials who told her they would free her if she did.

‘A mock trial’
He told CNN her trial only lasted about 15 minutes.

"The trial of course was not a real trial," her father told CNN. "A few minutes until the trial, she still didn't know there was a trial," he added. "It was a mock trial."

On Saturday, the father told NPR that his daughter was convicted Wednesday, two days after she appeared for trial. He said the court waited until Saturday to inform lawyers of its decision.

Her father was not allowed into the courtroom to see his daughter, whom he described as "quite depressed."

Saberi's case has been a point of friction between the U.S. and Iran at a time when Obama has said he wants to engage in talks on Tehran's nuclear program and other issues — a departure from the tough talk of the Bush administration.

The United States severed diplomatic relations with Iran after its 1979 Islamic revolution and takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Relations deteriorated further under the former President George W. Bush, who labeled Iran as part of the so-called "Axis of Evil" along with Saddam Hussein's Iraq and North Korea.

Iran has been mostly lukewarm to the Obama administration's overtures until Ahmadinejad's comment last week that he was ready for a new start.

But Iran's judiciary is dominated by hard-liners, who some analysts say are trying to derail efforts to improve U.S.-Iran relations.

Election ahead
Saberi's conviction comes about two months ahead of key presidential elections in June that are pitting hard-liners against reformists who support better relations with the United States. Ahmadinejad is seeking re-election, but the hard-liner's popularity has waned as Iran's economy struggles with high-inflation and unemployment.

More on Iran | Roxana Saberi

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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