Iran's judiciary said Monday it has ordered a "quick and fair" appeal for U.S. reporter Roxana Saberi who was sentenced to jail as a U.S. spy in a case that has raised deep concern in Washington.
"The different aspects of this case... should be fairly, accurately and quickly considered in appeal proceedings," judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahrudi was quoted as saying in a statement obtained by AFP.
An unprecedented move
Saberi, 31, was convicted by an Iranian revolutionary court in a closed-door trial last week of spying for the United States, which along with Israel is Tehran's main foe. The charge carries the death sentence.
But in an unprecedented move on Sunday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for "justice" for Saberi and said she should be given the right to defend herself.
Saberi's father and her lawyer welcomed the latest developments.
"I am happy about what I have heard and I appreciate their moves. The developments are positive," the father, Reza Saberi, told AFP.
"It shows that both are paying attention to my daughter's case and want to make sure that her case is being dealt with fairness and justice," he said.
Saberi's lawyer Abdolsamad Khoramshahi told AFP that Shahrudi’s order is "very good and a step forward" and that he will lodge an appeal by the end of the week.
Saberi's eight-year prison term is the harshest sentence yet for a dual national on security charges in Iran.
After the verdict was announced on Saturday, her father said Saberi had been tricked into confessing in the belief she would be released.
Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Hassan Ghashghavi denied on Monday that Saberi was being used as a bargaining chip in any talks with Washington or to try to secure the release of Iranian diplomats held by U.S. forces in Iraq.
"The issue of our diplomats is a whole different matter from the trial of an Iranian national such as Ms Saberi," Ghashghavi told reporters.
The former U.S. beauty queen with both Iranian and U.S. citizenship would have no consular access to the Swiss embassy, which represents American interests in Tehran, he added.
"We act according to our laws concerning Iranian citizens. She is an Iranian national and she has had full access to a lawyer," he said.
Iran does not recognize dual nationality.
On Sunday Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz raised Saberi's case at a meeting with Ahmadinejad in Geneva, on the eve of a controversial racism conference where the Iranian president was a speaker.
Give and take
Iran's state news agency IRNA said Ahmadinejad also called for the release of diplomats "abducted" by U.S. forces in Iraq in the meeting with Merz.
The U.S. military in Iraq raided the Iranian liaison office in the Kurdish northern city of Arbil in January 2007, seizing five men, two of whom were freed in November 2007.
Analyst Hamid Reza Jalaeipour said Saberi's case could play into a "diplomatic give and take" between Tehran and Washington.
"For example, Iran could say 'release our guys held in Iraq for her’," he told AFP.
Khoramshahi said Iranian Nobel peace laureate and prominent human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi would join the defence for the appeal. Ebadi was not available for comment.
A tumultuous history
The United States severed ties with Iran in the wake of the 1979 Islamic revolution, but since taking office in January President Barack Obama has called for dialogue with Tehran.
Washington has led international concern about the conviction of Saberi, who was initially detained in January accused of buying alcohol, an illegal act in the Islamic republic.
Obama, who has voiced "deep disappointment" over the verdict, denied on Sunday that Saberi was a spy and demanded her release.
Saberi, who is also of Japanese descent, has reported for U.S. National Public Radio, the BBC and Fox News, and has lived in Iran for the past six years.
Iran said Saberi's press card was revoked in 2006 and that she had since been working in Iran "illegally."
Japanese government spokesman Takeo Kawamura said Tokyo “regretted" the verdict and was ready to mediate between Iran and the United States.
Washington is also concerned about former FBI agent Robert Levinson who vanished on a Gulf island two years ago and U.S.-Iranian student Esha Momeni who has been prevented from leaving Iran despite being freed from jail last year.