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Iran gives reporter eight years over spying, disappoints Obama

world Updated: Apr 19, 2009 13:28 IST

US President Barack Obama has expressed his deep disappointment after Iran sentenced a US-Iranian journalist to eight years in jail on charges of spying for the United States.

The verdict on 31-year-old Roxana Saberi, a former US beauty queen, is the harshest sentence ever meted out to a dual national on security charges in Iran, and comes just weeks after Obama proposed better ties with Tehran.

Obama "is deeply disappointed at this news. His thoughts and prayers are with her and her family," his spokesman Robert Gibbs said in Trinidad, where the US president was attending a Summit of the Americas.

"What we think is important is that the situation be remedied," the spokesman said. "We will continue to express the concerns that we have."

The sentence handed down Saturday came weeks after Obama issued a message to the people of the Islamic republic on the occasion of the Iranian New Year.

Saberi has been detained since January in Tehran's Evin prison, initially reported to have been held for buying alcohol -- an illegal act in the Islamic republic. She was later charged with spying and put on trial on Monday.

The espionage charges, which US State Department spokesman Robert Wood said last week were "baseless (and) without foundation," could have brought the death penalty.

Her lawyer Abdolsamad Khoramshahi said he would file an appeal. "Roxana said in court that her earlier confessions were not true and she told me she had been tricked into believing that she would be released if she cooperated," her father Reza Saberi said.

"Her denial is documented in her case but apparently they did not pay attention to it," he said. Several US-Iranians, including academics, have been detained in recent years on security charges, but they were released after several months behind bars.

Saberi, who is also of Japanese descent, has reported for US-based National Public Radio (NPR), the BBC and Fox News, and had lived in Iran for six years. The BBC said in a statement issued in London it was "extremely concerned at this severe sentence."

NPR president Vivian Schiller said: "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."

Iran's foreign ministry spokesman Hassan Ghashghavi said in March that Saberi's press card had been revoked in 2006 and that she had been working "illegally" since then. Earlier this month Tehran's deputy prosecutor Hassan Haddad said Saberi was carrying out "spying activities under the guise of being a reporter."

Haddad said Saberi had entered Iran, which does not recognise dual nationality, as an Iranian citizen and "there is no evidence that she has another citizenship."

Last month, Saberi's parents -- who came to Iran to pursue her case and have visited her at least twice -- appealed to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for her release, saying she was in a "dangerous" mental state.

A website Freeroxana.net has been set up by her friends and university alumni, and the Committee to Protect Journalists also launched a petition calling for her release.

The website said Saberi was chosen Miss North Dakota in 1997 and was among the top 10 finalists for Miss America the following year.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she had delivered a letter to Iranian officials on March 31, seeking Saberi's release and making appeals on behalf of two other US citizens.

Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent, vanished on the Gulf island of Kish two years ago, and student Esha Momeni has been prevented from leaving Iran despite being released from jail last year.