x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

American hikers will face trial in Iran

Tehran says a court will try three Americans who crossed its border with Iraq last July.

TEHRAN // Iran said yesterday a court will try three Americans who wandered across the border from Iraq last July and became involved in an increasingly bitter standoff with the West over Tehran's nuclear programme. The Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki has not said when the trial would begin or even what the Americans were charged with, other than that they had "suspicious aims". Last month, Iran's chief prosecutor said they were accused of spying. "They will be tried by Iran's judiciary system and verdicts will be issued," Mr Mottaki told a news conference.

He said the three were still being interrogated. In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the Iranian move was "totally unfounded" and made a fresh appeal to authorities to release the Americans. "We consider this a totally unfounded charge," she told reporters. "There is no basis for it. The three young people who were detained by the Iranians have absolutely no connection with any kind of action against the Iranian state or government."

"In fact, they were out hiking and unfortunately, apparently, allegedly, walked across an unmarked boundary," she said. "We appeal to the Iranian leadership to release these three young people and free them as soon as possible." The three, Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 31, and Josh Fattal, 27, - all graduates of the University of California at Berkeley - had been trekking in Iraq's northern Kurdistan region when they accidentally crossed into Iran, according to their relatives.

The trio were arrested on July 31. All three families declined to comment on yesterday's announcement. In an interview with the Associated Press in September, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad noted that while the Americans had broken the law by crossing into Iran, he would ask the judiciary to expedite the process and to "look at the case with maximum leniency." The three Americans have been held in Iran's Evin prison, where Swiss diplomats have visited them twice and said they are healthy. Because the US and Iran do not have direct diplomatic relations, the Swiss Embassy maintains an American interests section.

Mr Bauer and Ms Shourd had been living in Damascus, Syria, where he was studying Arabic and she was teaching English, and both did freelance journalism or writing online. Friends have described them as passionate adventurers interested in the Middle East and human rights. Mr Fattal, who spent three years with a group dedicated to sustainable farming near Cottage Grove, Oregon, USA, had been overseas since January as a teaching assistant with the International Honors Program. Hoping to prove that they were simply on holiday, the families released videos taken just two days before their detention, showing the three backpackers dancing and joking in an unfinished cinder block building they came across in Kurdistan's mountains. In one video, Mr Fattal performed an impromptu rap about Iraq. The case came at a time of rising tension between Iran and the West over Iran's nuclear capabilities and whether it was developing an atomic weapon. The US and its allies have given Tehran until the end of the year to accept a UN-drafted plan under which Iran would send most of its low-enriched uranium abroad.

* AP