Two American men – strayed hikers or US spies, depending on the recounting of their capture by Iranian security forces along the Iraq-Iran border – have been given stiff sentences.
Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, who’ve been held for two years in a Tehran prison, each received five years for espionage (“cooperating with the American intelligence service”) and three years for illegal entry into Iran, according to state-run TV IRINN.
The US, which does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, is seeking information on the reported sentencing from the Swiss government, which handles US diplomatic interests with Tehran.
“We have repeatedly called for the release of Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, who have now been held in Iran’s Evin prison for two years,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement Saturday. “Shane and Josh have been imprisoned too long, and it is time to reunite them with their families.”
Bauer, Fattal, and fellow American Sarah Shourd were arrested on July 31, 2009 near Iran’s border with Iraq.
While hiking in the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, the trio say they inadvertently crossed the unmarked border into Iran. (Some reports claim the Americans were captured by Iranian security forces on the Iraqi side of the border.) Iran alleges that they were there as spies for the United States.
Because of medical problems, Ms. Shourd was freed on $500,000 bail in September 2010 and returned home.
The announcement Saturday comes as a great disappointment to the families of the two men as well as something of a diplomatic surprise.
Earlier this month, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said he hoped “the trial of the two American defendants who were detained for the crime of illegally entering Iran will finally lead to their freedom.” Their lawyer also had expressed hope they might receive a pardon during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, according to an Associated Press report.
“This is a strong verdict inconsistent with the charges,” Masoud Shafiei, the men’s Iranian attorney, told the AP.
The last direct contact Bauer and Fattal had with family members was in May 2010 when the mothers of the three were permitted a short visit in Tehran.
According to Amnesty International, Bauer and Fattal “have been denied adequate access to their lawyer and have had very limited access to consular assistance.”
“The Iranian authorities have held these men for two years, subjecting them to legal proceedings that fall far short of international fair trial standards,” Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program, said last month. “By now it seems clear that the Iranian authorities have no legal basis for continuing to hold these US nationals, so they must be released and allowed to leave the country.”
Observers believe that the hikers are being held as bargaining chips to be used in Iran’s dealings with the United States. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is scheduled to attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September. Supporters hold out hope that Bauer and Fattal still may be pardoned and released.