An American journalist jailed for more than two months in Iran has been charged with spying for the U.S., a judge said Wednesday, dashing hopes of a quick release days after her parents arrived in the country seeking her freedom.
The espionage charge is far more serious than earlier statements by Iranian officials that the woman had been arrested for working in the Islamic Republic without press credentials and her own assertion in a phone call to her father that she was arrested after buying a bottle of wine.
Roxana Saberi, who grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, and is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Iran, has been living in Iran for six years. She has reported from there for several news organizations, including National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corp.
An investigative judge involved in the case told state TV that Saberi was passing classified information to U.S. intelligence services.
"Under the cover of a journalist, she visited government buildings, established contacts with some of the employees, gathered classified information and sent it to the U.S. intelligence services," said the judge, who under security rules was identified only by his surname, Heidarifard.
"Her activities were discovered by the counter-espionage department of the Intelligence Ministry," Heidarifard said.
Saberi will stand trial next week, the judge said, though he did not specify which day.
The announcement of espionage charges got the attention of the Obama administration, which has been pushing for her release.
"We are deeply concerned by the news that we're hearing," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters at the State Department, adding that the administration has asked Swiss diplomats in Iran for the "most accurate, up-to-date information" on Saberi. Though the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with Iran, it has an interests section at the Swiss Embassy.
Officials in the woman's home state who have been pressing for action also expressed concern about the direction her case is taking.
"This is disturbing news and is certainly hard to believe," said Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, noting that at first the government had accused her of working without accreditation. "Now the story is Roxana is a spy? I find this all very hard to believe."
The 31-year-old freelance reporter was arrested in late January. Her lawyer, Abdolsamad Khorramshahi, said Saberi has been informed of the espionage charge against her and that he plans to request that she be released on bail until the trial.
Human rights groups have repeatedly criticized Iran for arresting journalists and suppressing freedom of speech. The government has arrested several Iranian-Americans in the past few years, citing alleged attempts to overthrow its Islamic government.
In another indication of the seriousness of the case, Saberi's lawyer also learned this week that it would be reviewed by Iran's Revolutionary Court, which normally handles cases involving threats to national security.
Khorramshahi said he has not yet been allowed to read the text of the indictment, which he expects to see by Saturday.
After her arrest, Iran's Foreign Ministry had initially said she had engaged in illegal activities because she continued working in Iran after the government revoked her press credentials in 2006.
Saberi's parents visited their daughter Monday in Evin prison, north of the capital, Tehran. The couple from North Dakota met Saberi for half an hour - the first time they had spoken to her since she called them on Feb. 10 to say she had been arrested.
Her father, Reza Saberi, and her mother, Akiko, were pleased after the meeting and said it appeared their daughter was in good health and in good spirits, according to the lawyer.
They could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
Saberi's father has said his daughter was finishing a book on Iran and had planned to return to the United States this year.
Roxana Saberi was Miss North Dakota in 1997 and was among 10 finalists in the Miss America pageant that year. She graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., with degrees in mass communication and French and with ambitions to become an international correspondent. She said that her goal as Miss North Dakota was to encourage people to appreciate cultural differences.
Saberi's mother is from Japan and her father is from Iran. Roxana was born in the United States and grew up in Fargo. Her father has said she was determined to go to Iran.
"I was very worried and I was reluctant for her to go," Reza Saberi said in an interview on March 1. "She was very persistent about it."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)