TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called on the judiciary to ensure that an Iranian-American journalist jailed for espionage enjoys her legal right to defend herself, the official news agency IRNA said on Sunday.
Roxana Saberi's lawyer welcomed Ahmadinejad's intervention in a letter to Tehran's prosecutor, published a day after the U.S.-born freelance reporter was sentenced to eight years in jail on charges of spying for the United States.
Lawyer Abdolsamad Khorramshahi has said he will appeal the verdict, which comes at a time when the new U.S. administration of President Barack Obama is trying to engage the Islamic state diplomatically, after three decades of mutual mistrust.
Obama said he was "deeply concerned" for Saberi's safety and urged Tehran to free her.
"I have complete confidence that she was not engaging in any sort of espionage," Obama told a news conference in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, where he was attending the Fifth Summit of the Americas.
He said Washington would be in touch with Tehran about the case through Swiss intermediaries.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said releasing Saberi, 31, would serve as a goodwill gesture.
Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based media rights group, called Saberi's conviction "unjust under the Iranian criminal code" and said her lawyer was not with her when she appeared before the judges for the single hearing on April 13.
IRNA said the letter from Ahmadinejad's chief of staff, Abdolreza Sheikholeslami, to prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi dealt with the case of Saberi and that of detained Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan.
"Based on the president's insistence, please make sure that all the legal stages about the mentioned people be based on justice," it said.
" ... and you personally make sure that the accused people enjoy all freedoms and legal rights to defend themselves and their rights are not violated," the letter added.
Derakhshan has been nicknamed the "Blogfather" for pioneering a blogging revolution in Iran. Canadian media have said he is being held on charges of spying for Israel.
Saberi, who is a citizen of both the United States and Iran, was arrested in January for working in Iran after her press credentials had expired. She was sentenced five days after going on trial on April 13.
Saberi has worked for the BBC, the U.S. network National Public Radio and other international media.
EBADI JOINS DEFENSE TEAM
Her father, Reza Saberi, told NPR on Saturday she had been coerced into statements that she later retracted.
Lawyer Khorramshahi said of Ahmadinejad's statement: "We also want what the president wants, especially regarding making meeting my client easier, and also we want them (the judiciary) to be more accurate at the appeals stage."
He said Shirin Ebadi, Iran's 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, would join the Saberi defense team.
One Iranian analyst said Ahmadinejad, who is expected to run for a second four-year term in an election in June, was sending a message to people both in and outside Iran that he cared about people and was using his presidential powers to help Saberi.
"This is not only Ahmadinejad ... Politicians do this throughout the world," he said, predicting that the sentence would be commuted or reduced by a higher court.
Washington cut ties with Iran shortly after the Islamic revolution in 1979 but Obama has offered a new beginning of engagement if the Iranian government "unclenches its fist."
Iran says it wants to see a real switch in Washington's policies away from those of former President George W. Bush, who led a drive to isolate the country because of nuclear work the West suspects has military aims, a charge Iran denies.
(Additional reporting by David Alexander in Port of Spain)