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Iranian president urges 'justice' for US reporter

world Updated: Apr 20, 2009 07:59 IST

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for fair treatment of Roxana Saberi, the US journalist given an eight year prison term on spying charges that the United States says are false.

Ahmadinejad told the Tehran prosecutor to examine the cases against both Saberi and an Iranian-Canadian blogger who has been behind bars since November, state news agency IRNA reported on Sunday.

"You must do what is needed to secure justice ... in examining these people's charges," the president's chief of staff Abdolreza Sheikholeslami said in a letter to prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi.

"Take care that the defendants have all the legal freedoms and rights to defend themselves against the charges."

Saberi, 31, a former US beauty queen with dual Iranian and US citizenship, was convicted on April 13 by an Iranian revolutionary court of spying for the United States during a closed-door trial.

The verdict, made public on Saturday, disappointed US President Barack Obama, who denied that Saberi was a spy and demanded her release.

"She is an American citizen and I have complete confidence that she was not engaging in any sort of espionage," Obama said.

"She was an Iranian-American who was interested in the country which her family came from, and it is appropriate for her to be treated as such and to be released."

Saberi's lawyer has said he would appeal the verdict, which is the harshest sentence yet for a dual national on security charges in Iran.

She has been held since late January, when she was initially reported to have been arrested for buying alcohol, an illegal act in the Islamic republic.

US-born Saberi, who is also of Japanese descent, has reported for US National Public Radio, the BBC and Fox News, and has been living in Iran for the past six years.

In March, the foreign ministry said Saberi's press card was revoked in 2006 and that she had been working in Iran "illegally" since then.

Ahmadinejad's intervention came a day before a UN conference against racism and intolerance in Geneva.

The president's previous comments about Israel and his description of the Holocaust as a "myth" have sparked fears that his speech could overshadow the conference, which the United States and Israel are boycotting.

Switzerland has been representing US consular interests in Iran since 1980 and acting as a go-between, after Tehran and Washington broke off diplomatic relations.

Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz raised Saberi's case during a meeting with Ahmadinejad in Geneva on Sunday.

Merz "expressed Switzerland's concern relating to human rights in Iran" during the meeting "in particular concerning corporal punishment, stonings and the execution of minors," a statement said.

The Swiss president also expressed the hope that the conference would take place "in a constructive atmosphere and one of mutual respect."

The Iranian-Canadian blogger, Hossein Derakhshan, has been detained since his arrival in Iran in November 2008. He is being investigated on charges of insulting Shiite imams.