TEHRAN Iran's Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi has agreed to help defend a U.S.-born journalist jailed for spying but prison officials refused to let a member of her team see Roxana Saberi on Sunday, an Ebadi aide said.
Lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani, a member of Ebadi's defence group, could not visit Saberi for a first meeting in Tehran's Evin jail even though a court had given its permission, spokeswoman Narges Mohammadi told Reuters.
Mohammadi initially said it was Ebadi who went to Evin, but she later said it was Soltani who had tried to see Saberi on behalf of the defence team.
"They didn't let him visit her," she told Reuters.
She was speaking a day after Saberi's father said his 31-year-old daughter had called to say she was on a hunger strike and would continue to refuse food until she was released.
The freelance journalist was sentenced to eight years in jail on April 18 on charges of spying for the United States, in a verdict that could complicate Washington's efforts towards reconciliation with Iran after three decades of mutual mistrust.
The defence lawyer who so far has handled her case, Abdolsamad Khorramshahi, said on Saturday he had appealed the sentence. He had previously said he believed Ebadi would help in the appeals process.
Mohammadi said Saberi's father, Reza, had come to Ebadi's office on Saturday and appointed a team of three lawyers led by the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
There was no immediate comment from Iran's judiciary.
A citizen of both the United States and Iran, Saberi was arrested in late January for working in the Islamic Republic after her press credentials had expired. She was later charged with espionage.
The United States has called the charges against Saberi, who has worked for the BBC and the U.S. National Public Radio, baseless and demanded her immediate release.
U.S. President Barack Obama has expressed deep concern for her safety and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said releasing Saberi would serve as a goodwill gesture.
Tehran, which does not recognise dual nationality, says Washington should respect the independence of Iran's judiciary.
But in a statement welcomed by Khorramshahi, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last week called on Tehran's prosecutor to ensure that Saberi enjoys full legal rights to defend herself.
The judiciary chief has said her appeal must be dealt with "in a careful, quick and fair way."
(Writing by Fredrik Dahl)