April 22, 2009— -- In an exclusive interview with ABC News, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declined to say whether his government would release Roxana Saberi, an Iranian-American freelance journalist based in Iran who was sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of being an American spy.
"I am not a judge, and I do not pass judgment over judicial cases," Ahmadinejad said in an interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos. "In Iran, the judiciary is independent. I have stressed like others she should be accorded her full rights."
President Obama has said he is confident that Saberi, whose parents live in North Dakota, was not involved in any espionage, and that he is "gravely concerned" for her safety.
"I think Mr. Obama, as a sign of change and also to encourage friendship, should allow laws to be processed fairly and allow the judiciary to carry out its duties," Ahmadinejad said, when asked whether he would release the 31-year-old as a humanitarian good will gesture. "I am sure she is not being mistreated."
Saberi's confinement has provided the Iranian president an opportunity to assess how he should deal with the new administration in Washington. The Obama administration has said it wants to reach out to the Iranian people but continues to take issues with Ahmadinejad's actions. Just recently, the U.S. condemned Ahmadinejad's statements criticizing Israel at the U.N. conference on racism in Geneva.
Ahmadinejad, who is up for re-election in June, echoed Obama's calls for a new beginning but would not commit to sitting down and discussing Iran's nuclear program, saying he is waiting for a response from the Obama administration on the letter he sent to the president when he took office in January.
Saberi's detention remains a thorny issue in U.S.-Iranian relations.
When asked whether ABC News could visit the detained journalist to see whether she is safe, the Iranian president responded, "Lets see. We'll see if our judicial regulations allow for that, sure. But if they do not allow for that, no. I'm afraid not."
An American Spy?
Saberi, who has already been in prison for more than two months, could spend up to eight years behind bars. In a closed-door trial that ended Saturday, Iranian judges concluded that the freelance journalist was working as an American spy.
Saberi was working in Iran for NPR, ABC News and other outlets at the time of her arrest, even though she lost her government-issued accreditation in 2006. Her lawyer, Abdolsamad Khorramshahi, said he would appeal the conviction within 20 days.
Saberi was initially picked up for buying alcohol, which is a crime in Iran. She was later cited for working as a journalist without legal credentials, and early this month, just days before her trial, Iranian officials announced the far more serious charges of espionage.
Ahmadinejad said Sunday that Saberi should be allowed to offer a full defense during her appeal.
The journalist's detention has become a strong political issue, with the U.S. government saying it is working to get more information about her case and to make sure that she is treated properly. Government officials said the journalist was wrongly accused and convicted, and that they are deeply disappointed by the Iranian government's actions.
"She is an American citizen, and I have complete confidence that she was not engaging in any sort of espionage," Obama said at a press conference on his trip to Trinadad and Tobago Sunday. "She is an Iranian-American who was interested in the country, which her family came from. And it is appropriate for her to be treated as such and to be released."
However, the White House has not specified the steps the administration is taking to free Saberi.
Echoing statements made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the United States is communicating through the Swiss government, which represents American interests in Tehran.
"I think we will continue to express the concerns that we have through the Swiss to the Iranian government, and make sure they underscore and understand our deep concern for these actions," Gibbs said at a briefing last weekend.