x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Germans detained in Iran meet family members

Two detained German journalists were allowed to meet their families nearly three months after they were arrested in Iran.

TEHRAN // Two detained German journalists were allowed to meet their families, nearly three months after they were arrested while covering the highly publicised case of an Iranian woman sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, Iranian and German officials said on Tuesday.

The meeting took place on Monday night in the north-western city of Tabriz, where the two Germans are being held, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters in Tehran. He and German officials did not say whether the meeting was taking place in the prison or elsewhere.

A German Foreign Office spokesman said the meeting was "still taking place" on Tuesday morning, without elaborating. The spokesman spoke on condition of anonymity in line with department policy.

Iran's English-language Press TV broadcast Tuesday a brief footage of the meeting. It showed the two men seated around a dining room table at what appeared to be a hotel restaurant. There were also two women wearing headscarves and several other men at the table.

The two Germans have been held since early October after being arrested while interviewing the son and lawyer of 43-year-old Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, sentenced to death by stoning for adultery. The two were working as reporter and photographer for the mass-circulation tabloid Bild am Sonntag. The son and lawyer were also arrested at the same time.

Iranian officials claim the Germans admitted violating Iranian laws forbidding those entering the country on tourist visas to work as journalists. Iran's judiciary rejected earlier claims by local officials who accused the two of espionage, and no spy charges have been filed against them.

Neither Iranian nor German authorities have so far identified the two journalists. But late Monday, Iran's state Press TV showed a passport belonging to a Marcus Alfred Rudolf Hellwig and identified the second journalist as Jens Andreas Koch.

Bild on Tuesday confirmed the meeting between the journalists and two family members had taken place. In a report on its website, the daily also quoted German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle as thanking his Iranian counterpart Ali Akbar Salehi "for his support" in arranging the meeting.

However, the German foreign minister added that "the government continues to press for a quick return of our two compatriots to Germany," Bild reported. The German Foreign Office could not immediately be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Much back-and-forth diplomacy apparently went into making the meeting happen.

Bild had said on Sunday that the reporter's sister and the photographer's mother would be able to meet with the journalists at an undisclosed location in Tehran. The newspaper said that meeting was first planned for Saturday and then rescheduled for Sunday, but both were cancelled.

Earlier on Monday, the German Foreign Ministry summoned the Iranian ambassador to complain that the two were not able to meet with relatives over Christmas, despite earlier promises. Westerwelle spoke several times with Salehi and the reporter's sister and the photographer's mother were later said to be on their way to Tabriz, 600 kilometres north-west of the capital.

Early in December, Iran signalled the two journalists could be released in a goodwill gesture on the occasion of the New Year holiday. But on Tuesday, Mehmanparast said their case was still under investigation.

Ashtiani's sentence, which Iran has put on hold pending a Supreme Court review, has brought harsh condemnation from the US, the European Union and rights groups who are pressuring Tehran to stay the execution. It has further strained Iran's relations with world powers, already tense over the country's disputed nuclear program.