Iran’s judiciary said on Tuesday that the trial of Roxana Saberi, the Iranian-American journalist, on charges of espionage had begun, in defiance of calls by the US administration to release her.

Alireza Jamshidi, judiciary spokesman, told reporters that “the first session of the trial” on charges of “spying for the US” had been held on Monday and that she had delivered her “final defence”. The verdict in the trial, which is being held behind closed doors, “will be issued in the coming weeks”, he added.

Ms Saberi has been held in the notorious Evin prison since her arrest in January. She had been working for various news organisations including the BBC, National Public Radio and Fox News for six years, ignoring a ban on her journalistic activities since 2006, and was writing a book on Iran.

The trial judge said last week that she had pleaded guilty to the charge of spying under the guise of journalism.

Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, has expressed concern over the fate of Ms Saberi and has asked Switzerland, which represents US interests in Iran, to pursue the case.

Mr Jamshidi dismissed the US rejection of her charges, saying that only Ms Saberi’s lawyer was entitled to go through the indictment and defend his client. The lawyer was not available for comment.

The prosecution of journalists in Iran is not unusual. The reformist daily Sarmayeh on Tuesday reported that 14 reporters had been jailed in the past year and about 70 newspapers taken to court.

However, being a dual national and working without a permit made Ms Saberi more vulnerable to the espionage charge.

Some analysts find the timing of the trial suspicious, coming as the administration of Barak Obama tries to engage Iran in talks on regional issues and the country’s nuclear programme. They fear Ms Saberi may be being used as a tool by radicals to hinder any engagement or to gain advantage in future talks.

During the past two years, since Iran’s tensions with the west, and in particular the US, escalated over the country’s nuclear and missile programmes, at least half a dozen dual nationals have been arrested and later released after a few months in jail.

Analysts consider the arrests an act of intimidation to scare those Iranians who are linked to foreign circles. There is also a genuine fear of the threat to the regime posed by the development of political networks between Iran and the outside world, they say.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

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