Inside the defense of Roxana Saberi

Roxana Saberi was released on Monday after more than four months imprisonment at Tehran’s Evin Prison. She had been convicted of spying for the U.S. in a closed-door, one-hour trial on April 18 in a notoriously harsh Iranian Revolutionary Court and given an eight-year jail sentence. On Sunday, a court of appeal in Tehran gave Saberi and her two lawyers a chance to present their appeal. CPJ spoke to Saleh Nikbakht, one of the lawyers, about the trial. 

Nikbakht told CPJ that his client had been found guilty of spying for a “hostile country,” the U.S. “My defense was that Iran is not at war with America,” he said. “I mentioned several previous court records in which judges had rejected that Iran was at war with any country. … I also mentioned quotes of Iranian officials saying that Iran was not at war with any country.”

He said the defense team presented its case in about three hours and that his client defended herself well. “She told the judges that during interrogations she had been told that if she tells them ‘the truth,’ she will be released very soon, otherwise she will ‘get old in prison,’ ” Nikbakht said.

The prosecutor defended the conviction and asked the judges to uphold it because Saberi had “confessed to the charges,” Nikbakht said. Defense lawyers argued that the confession had been coerced and not put in writing, Nikbakht said. There was no further evidence of a confession, he said.

The hearing focused on a research paper on U.S. tactics toward Iraq that officers had found during a search of Saberi’s apartment in Tehran, Nikbakht said. The paper been produced in early 2003 by a center for strategic studies within the Iranian government.

Nikbakht said the prosecutor argued that Saberi had “access to classified information,” which the defense team rejected, saying that there was nothing in the paper to suggest that it was confidential. Saberi told the judges she had picked the paper at a public conference in Tehran.

The hearing lasted about five hours, Nikbakht said.

The next day, the court issued its decision: The espionage sentence was overturned, but Saberi was given a two-year suspended jail term for “having classified information,” Nikbakht said. The ruling also “bans her from practicing journalism in Iran for five years, but it doesn’t ban her from traveling abroad,” he added.