US reporter 'fragile' after start of hunger strike in Tehran jail

Father of journalist sentenced for spying says she must be 'very weak' after five days without food

Roxana Saberi, the US-Iranian reporter jailed a week ago in Tehran on charges of spying that are untested in open court, has gone on hunger strike and is in a fragile state, according to her family and associates. Her father, Reza Saberi, said yesterday: "She went on a hunger strike on Tuesday to protest her imprisonment." He said she will continue "until she is freed", but added: "I am pretty certain that she must be very weak now."

The journalist, who grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, a city where yellow ribbons on trees now mark her incarceration, is 32 today, a birthday she will spend in Evin prison. She was arrested in January and initially accused – reports differ – of working without press credentials, or buying alcohol. But an Iranian judge later charged her with passing intelligence to the US. She was convicted after a one-day trial behind closed doors, and sentenced to eight years in prison.

In an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, her father and mother, Akiko, said that when they visited Roxana on Monday – the day before she started her hunger strike – she looked "frail and had lost some weight, but was in good spirits". She told them she signed a confession only after threats and the promise she would be released if she did.

An Iranian film-maker, who says he is engaged to Ms Saberi, defended his fiancée as innocent in an open letter last week and begged Iranian authorities to release her. Bahman Ghobadi said: "I am writing this letter for I am worried about her. I am worried about her health. I heard she was depressed and cried all the time. She is very sensitive. My letter is a desperate call to all statesmen and politicians, and to all those who can do something to help... I beg you, let her go!" Mr Ghobadi's films have won prizes at several festivals, including Cannes.

Ms Saberi's Iranian-born father has said his daughter was working on a book about the culture and people of Iran, and hoped to finish it and return to the US this year.

Mr Ghobadi said: "Roxana's book was a praise to Iran. All those who have talked, worked and sat with her know how guiltless she is."

Hopes for Ms Saberi's release rest on the fact that, with President Barack Obama trying to build bridges with Iran, she is an obstacle that neither side wants to closer diplomacy. While President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said it was not for him to interfere with the courts, Iran's judiciary spokesman has said that Ms Saberi's prison term may be reconsidered on appeal, when she will be allowed a full defence. On Monday, the judiciary chief ordered a full investigation into the case.

Ms Saberi, who has a master's degree from Cambridge University and is also a past entrant in the Miss America contest, moved to Iran six years ago and worked as a freelance journalist for National Public Radio and the BBC.

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