An Iranian court has sentenced an Iranian-American man to death on charges of spying for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The ISNA news agency quotes Iran's chief prosecutor, Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei, as saying that Amir Mirza Hekmati was sentenced to death for "cooperating with the hostile country America and spying" for the CIA.
Mohseni-Ejei also confirmed an earlier report by the semi-official Fars news agency quoting the verdict against Hekmati as guilty of being "corrupt on Earth" and of "mohareb," or waging war against God.
U.S. officials said they are trying to learn the details of the sentence against the 28-year-old. At a briefing for reporters, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called for his immediate release.
"If it is true that he has been so sentenced, we would condemn this verdict in the strongest terms, and we are working with all of our partners to convey that condemnation to the Iranian government," Nuland said. "We've maintained from the beginning that the charges against him were a fabrication, and we call on the Iranian government to release him immediately."
Mohseni-Ejei said Hekmati had 20 days to appeal, without specifying when the sentence was handed down.
"These accusations against Hekmati show only with thing: That this case is politically motivated," Abdul Karim Lahiji, vice president of the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda. "Over the last decade, there have been numerous cases like this where people were accused [by the Iranian regime] for the same reasons -- and they are usually convicted."
Hekmati, who was born in the United States and holds dual Iranian and U.S. citizenship, was accused by Iran's Intelligence Ministry of receiving training at U.S. bases in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq.
Iran's judiciary said earlier that Hekmati had admitted to having links with the CIA, but also said Hekmati had maintained that he had no intention of harming Iran.
In December, video footage broadcast by Iranian state television showed Hekmati saying that he had been trained in intelligence by the U.S. military and sent to Tehran to become a double agent for the CIA from within the Intelligence Ministry.
U.S. officials say Hekmati was obviously under duress when he made that videotaped confession.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Farda, U.S. State Department Persian spokesman Alan Eyre said the Tehran regime had a history of making political arrests and forcing detainees to make false confessions. He also said the reports of Hekmati's death sentence had not yet been verified.
"If true, we strongly condemn the verdict of the court," Eyre said. "The charges that Hekmati worked for the CIA or was sent to Iran by the CIA are laughable. The Iranian regime has a long record of confronting individuals with baseless spying charges, extracting forced confessions, and jailing innocent American citizens for political purposes."
The Iranian official who announced the court's verdict, Mohseni-Ejei, is himself on an EU sanctions list for human rights abuses that include orchestrating the torture of Iranian opposition supporters to extract confessions from them after the disputed June 2009 presidential election.
Hekmati's relatives in the United States also maintain that they think he was forced to make the confession. They say Hekmati, a former member of the U.S. Marines, had worked as a translator for the U.S. military in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Family Questions Trial Proceedings
They claim he had gone to Tehran to visit his grandmothers when he was arrested by Iranian authorities four months ago.
Prominent Iranian lawyer Mohammad Mostafaei told RFE/RL's Radio Farda from Norway that Iranian prosecutors usually seek the death penalty for the charge of "waging war against God."
"A moherabi [someone who wages war against God] is involved with groups who are against the government," Mostafaei said. "They attack the government by means of force. Or a moharebi is someone who supports terrorist groups."
Mostafaei also questioned the legitimacy of the charge of "cooperating with the hostile country America" because the United States is not at war with Iran.
"America is not considered to be a hostile country by legal definition," he said. "The reason for a country being considered hostile is if there is a state of war between that country and Iran."
In a statement in December, Hekmati's family complained that he was not getting a fair trial. Their statement said his only lawyer in Iran was a government-appointed attorney who did not meet with him until the first day of the trial.
The family also said they had tried to hire "at least 10 different attorneys" for Hekmati "to no avail."
Hekmati was born in Arizona and graduated from a high school in Michigan. His father, Ali Hekmati, is a science professor at a community college in Flint, Michigan.
Ali Hekmati says his son is not a CIA spy and that his relatives contacted the U.S. State Department last September after he was arrested.
The announcement of the verdict against Hekmati comes at a time of high tensions between Iran and the West, which have expanded economic sanctions on Tehran over its disputed nuclear program.
Abdul Karim Lahiji, vice president of the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights, told RFE/RL that Tehran had a history of using alleged spying cases by journalists, scientists, and other experts as a kind of negotiating chip in its disputes with the West.
"These accusations against Hekmati show only one thing: that this case is politically motivated," Lahiji said. "Over the last decade, there have been numerous cases like this where people were accused [by the Iranian regime] for the same reasons -- and they are usually convicted."
In a statement, Amnesty International questioned "the timing and political circumstances" of the death sentence against Hekmati and called on Iran not to execute him.
"We know from past experience that the Iranian authorities sometimes rush forward with executions of political prisoners -- including dual nationals -- at politically sensitive times and we fear that this execution could happen within days or weeks," said Ann Harrison, Amnesty International's interim director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Earlier on January 9, Iran's intelligence minister said a number of people had been arrested on charges of spying for the United States and trying to disrupt Iran’s March 2 parliamentary elections.
written by Ron Synovitz, Frud Bezhan, and Golnaz Esfandiari, with agency reports