x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Iran jails US hikers for eight years

The two Americans, who have been held in Tehran for two years, are expected to appeal against the ruling.

American hikers Shane Bauer, left, and Josh Fattal have been detained in Iran for more than two years.
American hikers Shane Bauer, left, and Josh Fattal have been detained in Iran for more than two years.

TEHRAN // Two American men already held for two years in Tehran have been sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of espionage and illegal entry into Iran.

The announcement on state television appeared to dash hopes for the imminent release of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal after Iran's foreign minister suggested this month that the trial could clear the way for their freedom.

The Americans denied the charges and said they were only hiking in a scenic and largely peaceful area of northern Iraq near the Iranian border.

The two men have been held since July 2009.

A third American who was taken with them, Sarah Shourd, was released in September last year on US$500,000 bail (Dh1.83 million) and returned to the United States.

Ms Shourd's case was "still open", the website irinn.ir reported.

Bauer and Fattal, both 28, have been sentenced to three years each for illegal entry into Iran and five years each for spying for the US, the website quoted sources at Iran's judiciary as saying. It was not clear if that included time served. They have 20 days to appeal against the sentence.

Their Iranian lawyer, Masoud Shafiei, said he had not been told about the verdict but that he would definitely appeal the sentence if true.

"I've not been notified of any verdict in the case of my clients," Mr Shafiei said. "This is a strong verdict inconsistent with the charges."

The Americans said they mistakenly crossed into Iran when they stepped off a dirt road while hiking near a waterfall. While other parts of Iraq remain troubled by violence, the semiautonomous Kurdish north has drawn tourists in recent years, including foreigners.

It was unclear what maximum sentence could be imposed by the Revolutionary Court, which handles state security issues. Espionage could bring the death penalty, but handing the sentence to a foreigner remains unknown legal territory in Iran.

Iran insisted that its judiciary was independent from political currents, but Iranian officials have used the detained Americans to draw attention to alleged mistreatment of Iranians in US prisons and others who were held by US forces in Iraq.

The report on the sentences came just two days after the US President Barack Obama made his most direct call for the resignation of Syria's president Bashar Al Assad, who remains among Iran's closest allies.

The case has added to tensions between the US and Iran, including Tehran's disputed nuclear programme.

But Iran also recognised the potential for goodwill gestures. Ms Shourd's release came last year as Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was preparing for the annual UN gathering of world leaders.

This month, the 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 for the holy month of Ramadan.

Ms Shourd was back living in Oakland, California; Bauer grew up in Onamia, Minnesota; and Fattal hailed from suburban Philadelphia.

The last direct contact family members had with Bauer and Fattal was in May last year when their mothers were permitted to visit them in Tehran.

Their case most closely parallels that of freelance journalist Roxana Saberi, an Iranian-American who was convicted of spying before being released in May 2009.

Ms Saberi was sentenced to eight years in prison, but an appeals court reduced that to a two-year suspended sentence and let her return to the US

At the time, a spokesman for the Iranian judiciary said the court ordered the reduction as a gesture of "Islamic mercy" because Ms Saberi had co-operated with authorities and expressed regret.

In May 2009, a French academic, Clotilde Reiss, was freed after her 10-year sentence on espionage-related charges was commuted.

Last year, Iran freed an Iranian-American businessman, Reza Taghavi, who was held for 29 months for alleged links to a bombing in the southern city of Shiraz, which killed 14 people.

Taghavi denied any role in the attack.