Two American hikers who have been held in a Tehran prison for more than a year will face trial at the Revolutionary Court early next month charged with espionage and illegally entering the country, their lawyer in Iran confirmed yesterday.
The two men – Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, who are both 28 – have remained behind bars in Iran despite the release on health grounds last month of the third member of their trekking group, Sarah Shourd, on $500,000 (£315,000) bail. Ms Shourd, 32, is Mr Bauer's fiancée. She is in the US, but is in theory expected to go back for the trial.
News that a trial has finally been set and will begin on 6 November was relayed to all three families by their lawyer, Masoud Shafiei. The Americans insist they were on a walking expedition to a scenic waterfall on the border between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan in late July last year when they got lost.
The trio met while studying at the University of California at Berkeley. Mr Fattal joined the other two in Damascus, where they were living at the time, and they set off for what they and friends insist was a perfectly innocent walking expedition. The falls on the border, though remote, are famous for their beauty.
The mothers of all three hikers were permitted to see them in May. However, hopes they had then of leaving Iran with their children were dashed and they returned to America without them.
Mr Shafiei noted that if Ms Shourd, opts not to return to Iran, she could stand to lose all of the bail she posted. "If she is not present, it will hurt her bail," the lawyer, said. "I cannot request that she be present. It is up to them to decide. I as a lawyer have only informed them of the time of the trial and I will execute my duty to defend the three."
The trial will be presided over by Abolqasem Salavati, a judge who has become well known for cases involving those accused of anti-Iranian activities, particularly following the street protests that followed the 2009 presidential poll. The predicament of the accused men is complicated by America's deeply strained relations with Iran. Yesterday, officials in Tehran boasted that the state has continued to increase its stockpile of enriched uranium, a claim that will cause further alarm in Western capitals which have accused Iran of pursuing the development of a nuclear bomb.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday repeated her call for Iran to release the men. "It's our continuing request to the Iranian government that, just as they released the young woman, that they release these two young men," she said. "We regret that they and their families are being subjected to a criminal system that we do not think in any way reflects their actions."
Last weekend, Iran released an Iranian-American businessman, Reza Taghavi, after he had spent more than two years behind bars accused of relaying money from the US to an anti-government group. He eventually persuaded prosecutors that he had been tricked into handling the money.