In a rare intervention, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Sunday warned the judiciary to ensure that US-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi has "all freedoms and legal rights" to defend herself from espionage charges.
Ms. Saberi was sentenced to eight years in prison on Saturday for spying for the United States.
The case comes even as President Barack Obama has made several overtures to Tehran in recent months, in a bid to end 30 years of mutual hostility and begin a dialogue that would include Iran's controversial nuclear program.
Mr. Obama was "deeply disappointed" at news of Saberi's sentence, his spokesman said.
The tough verdict stood in contrast to a recent cooling of the heated anti-Western rhetoric from Mr. Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials. There has been a pledge to offer a new diplomatic package that would "guarantee peace and justice in the world," and indications that Iran is also willing to start a new chapter with the US.
The letter from Ahmadinejad's office is an unusual intervention in a judicial matter, and suggests a degree of politics at play in Saberi's case.
"At the president's insistence, you must do what is needed to secure justice … in examining these people's charges," said the letter addressed to the Tehran prosecutor, regarding Saberi and Hossein Derakhshan, an Iranian-Canadian blogger detained since November.
Ahmadinejad called upon the hard-line prosecutor to "personally take care so that the accused can use all their freedoms and legal rights in defending themselves against the accusations and not even the slightest injustice is carried out."
The letter was made public by the state news agency IRNA, and welcomed by Saberi's lawyer. "We also want what the president wants," lawyer Abdolsamad Khorramshahi told Reuters, including easier meetings with Saberi and for the judiciary "to be more accurate at the appeals stage." Her lawyer has 20 days to file an appeal.
VICTIM OF HARD-LINE POLITICS?
Analysts say the timing of Saberi's arrest in late January and the severity of her sentence – ordered after a closed-door trial that began last Monday – is no coincidence, and may be an effort by right-wing factions in Iran to complicate or disrupt chances of talks between the US and Iran. Or, it may be to improve Iran's negotiating position in any future talks.
"I think they are just looking to produce wild-cards for themselves, so when the time comes for negotiations they can spend them," says an Iranian journalist in Tehran.
"The US will now see [Ahmadinejad's letter] as a positive step by Iran, while Iran would be asking for something real. Our positive step is in effect going back one step and then just returning to our old place. While [the US] would actually have to take a step forward."
Saberi is a freelance journalist who has lived in Iran for six years and has worked for the BBC, NPR, and FOX News, though her press card was revoked in 2006. Earlier this month, Tehran's deputy prosecutor said Saberi was carrying out "spying activities under the guise of being a reporter," and that, because she entered Iran on an Iranian passport, "there is no evidence that she has another citizenship."
The US State Department says the spying charges are "baseless," and has said Iran would win American goodwill if it "responded in a positive way."
"The world would see any easy end to the Saberi case as a huge favor," says the Tehran journalist. "There will be a hue and cry. The sentence could be reduced – maybe from eight to three years – and it would still be a card in the hands of the Iranians, something that could be used in the later stages of the negotiations."
Nobel Peace Laureate and human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi is reported to be joining the defense team. Saberi's parents have traveled to Iran from North Dakota to help secure their daughter's release. They appealed directly to Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei for her freedom, saying she was in a "dangerous" mental state.
Her father Reza Saberi says she was deceived by her jailers, and had spoken of going on a hunger strike. "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," Mr. Saberi told AFP. "Her denial is documented in her case but apparently they didn't pay attention to it."