TEHRAN, Iran – The father of a jailed American journalist charged by Iran with espionage called Thursday for his daughter's release and said he will not leave the country until she is freed.
Roxana Saberi, a 31-year-old dual American-Iranian citizen, was arrested in late January and initially accused of working without press credentials. But an Iranian judge leveled a far more serious allegation on Wednesday, charging her with spying for the United States.
"I demand them to release my daughter as soon as possible so that she can return to her normal life and continue her job," Saberi's father told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview. "I will stay here until she is freed."
The U.S. government has been pressing for Saberi's release and the new charge this week was a setback at a time when President Barack Obama has expressed a willingness to talk with Iran after many years of rocky relations under the former U.S. administration.
Saberi has been living in Iran for the last six years, working as a freelance reporter for organizations including National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corp.
Her father has said in the past that his daughter told him in a phone call she was arrested after buying a bottle of wine. Under the advice of Saberi's lawyer, he would not comment Thursday on the latest charge.
Iran now alleges 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," the judge, who under security rules was identified only by his surname Heidarifard, said Wednesday. "Her activities were discovered by the counterespionage department of the Intelligence Ministry."
In another indication of the seriousness of her case, her lawyer Abolsamad Khorramshahi learned this week that it would be reviewed by Iran's Revolutionary Court, which normally handles cases involving threats to national security. The lawyer said Thursday that he had not yet been allowed to read the text of the indictment, which he expects to see by Saturday.
The judge said Saberi will go on trial next week, but he did not give the exact date.
Iranian-born Reza Saberi and his wife arrived in Iran Sunday and visited their daughter Monday in Evin prison north of Tehran, well-known for holding political prisoners.
"We were allowed to visit her for about 20 minutes," the father said. "We talked to her. She was spiritually better than before. However physically, she was extremely thin and weak but she said she eats now and is going to exercise," he added. "This gave us the hope that she will get better."
Saberi grew up in Fargo, North Dakota. But the Iranian judge in the case told state TV that the judiciary had not yet confirmed her American nationality. The U.S. government has said she is an American citizen.
"She is certainly an American national," her father said. "She also came to Iran and received an Iranian ID card and passport and according to Iranian law, she is Iranian too. She is actually a dual citizen."
The U.S. has been pushing for Saberi's release, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday Washington was deeply concerned by the reported charges and was seeking information from Swiss diplomats in Tehran.
The U.S. broke off diplomatic relations with Iran following the 1979 Islamic revolution and the hostage-taking at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and Switzerland represents U.S. interests in the country now.
The U.S. and its allies accuse Iran of pursuing a nuclear weapons program, which Tehran denies. But the Obama administration is trying to ease the strained relationship.
On Wednesday, administration officials said U.S. diplomats would attend group talks with Iran over its suspect nuclear program. That is a major departure from President George W. Bush's policy of trying to isolate a nation he once deemed to be evil.
Saberi was one of three missing or detained Americans mentioned in a written message passed by American officials directly to Iranian diplomats last month at an international conference on Afghanistan in The Hague, Netherlands. Clinton attended the conference.
Iran has not yet responded to the message, which sought information about the three.
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 through what it calls a "soft revolution."