A Syrian foreign ministry official said that a 19-year-old Syrian blogger who was sentenced to five years in prison this week was working to pass secrets on to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
On Monday, Tal al-Mallohi, a 19-year-old schoolgirl, was brought chained and blindfolded into a special court - off-limits to the public - to hearand calls for her immediate release from Washington and from human rights groups.
Mallohi has been seen only twice by her family since she was jailed without charges in December 2009 by Syria's security forces.
Bushra Kanafani, spokesperson for the Syrian Foreign Ministry, defended the sentence to journalists, and charged that Mallohi had been asked by American operatives to gather information on Syrian officials.
At the age of 15, Kanafani said, Mallohi "was recruited by an Austrian officer of UNDOF (the United Nations Disengagement of Force in the Golan) who made use of the fact that she had grown up in a broken family.
"He started giving her gifts and presents until he established a relationship with her. Then, he asked her to move with her family to Cairo," where they arrived in September 2006, "and lived in the district of Helwan in coordination of an Egyptian citizen, Ahmad Fawzi Habib."
In 2008, Kanafani said, the Austrian officer introduced Mallohi to a CIA officer and to Catherine De Stephano, a U.S. embassy diplomat in Cairo. Kanafani claimed Mallohi was asked to form a relationship with a Syrian diplomat and collect information about Syrian politicians and security officers.
Kanafani said that the Syrian diplomat refused Mallohi's approaches, and informed authorities.
The spokesperson also said Mallohi's sentence had nothing to do with her blog, which focuses primarily on social commentary and the suffering of the Palestinians.
Before the official Syrian explanation, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley sharply criticized Syria's handling of the case. He rejected what he called "baseless allegations of American connections that have resulted in a spurious accusation of espionage."
Those charges include allegations that Mallohi's acquaintances were involved in an assassination attempt on a Syrian army officer.