TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran’s case against U.S.-born journalist Roxana Saberi was based on her acquiring a confidential government report on the U.S. invasion of Iraq, one of her defense lawyers said on Wednesday.
Saleh Nikbakht gave details about the charges against Saberi two days after an appeal court cut her eight-year jail sentence for spying to a two-year suspended term and she walked free after more than three months in Tehran’s Evin jail.
He said the 32-year-old freelance reporter had copied the report, which was prepared by a strategic research body at the Iranian president’s office ahead of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. But she never used the information, he said.
Saberi’s release removed a snag in U.S. President Barack Obama’s attempts to improve U.S.-Iranian relations after three decades of mutual mistrust. On Monday, Obama welcomed Iran’s move to free Saberi as a “humanitarian gesture.”
“She had obtained a report that, at that time, the Center for Strategic Research had prepared on the future attack of America on Iraq (in 2003),” Nikbakht told Reuters, without saying how or when Saberi got hold of the document.
The eight-year jail sentence handed down by a lower court on April 18 was also based on the argument that she had cooperated with a hostile country, the United States, Nikbakht said.
This was later changed by the appeal court but she was still found guilty of obtaining and keeping a classified report.
“Because she did not have bad intentions and did not use it, she was sentenced to a two-year suspended jail term,” he said.
Her other lawyer, Abdolsamad Khorramshahi, earlier said that Saberi in an appeal hearing on Sunday had “accepted she had made a mistake and got access to documents she should not have. But there was no transfer of any classified information.”
Saberi, a citizen of both the United States and Iran, was arrested in late January for working in the Islamic Republic after her press credentials had expired. Iranian judiciary officials later said she was charged with espionage.
The United States had said the charges were baseless and demanded her immediate release. Tehran does not recognize dual nationality and told Washington not to interfere.
The two countries were already locked in an acrimonious dispute over Iran’s nuclear program, which the West fears is aimed at making arms. Iran says it is to generate electricity.
Obama has offered Iran a fresh start in relations, though Iran says Washington must first show a real change in policy.
Analysts and diplomats have cautioned against seeing Saberi’s arrest as a sign of Iran rejecting Obama’s overture, but say her case and her release may have been influenced by it.
Some saw the arrest as a warning to foreign media ahead of Iran’s June presidential election, while others say it could have been a bid by hardliners to obstruct any thaw in U.S.-Iran ties or that she was supposed to be used as a “bargaining chip.”
In any case, one Western diplomat in Tehran said, the move to free her was “certainly a positive step.”
Additional reporting and writing by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Richard Balmforth