Iran rebuffs Obama's call to free US detainees

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The Independent Online

Iran has rejected President Barack Obama's plea to release three Americans arrested more than a year ago near the Iraq border, the foreign ministry said, insisting that justice would take its course.

Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal were arrested on July 31, 2009 on Iran's border with Iraq. Their families say they were hiking in the mountains of northern Iraq. Iran suspects them of spying but has not brought charges against them.

The arrests further complicated relations between Tehran and Washington, which are facing off over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"The above matter is a purely judicial issue and will be thus pursued within this framework," foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast was quoted as saying by the semi-official news agency Fars on Sunday.

"Any effort to impact the above individuals' legal proceedings through political pressure or media scenarios ... will have no bearing on the Iranian judiciary's independent approach," he said.

That was an apparent reference to a statement Obama made on Friday marking the Americans' 12 months in captivity. He said the three had committed no crimes and that their continued imprisonment violated human rights conventions.

"I want to be perfectly clear: Sarah, Shane and Josh have never worked for the United States government. They are simply open-minded and adventurous young people who represent the best of America, and of the human spirit," Obama said.

"Their unjust detention has nothing to do with the issues that continue to divide the United States and the international community from the Iranian government."

Iran is still investigating spying allegations, Mehmanparast said.

"The three American nationals were detained ... due to illegal entry into Iranian territory. Consequently their violation is obvious and they will have to go before the law like any other individual.

"Meanwhile, other probable charges against them, such as counter-security measures or intentions against the Islamic Republic of Iran, are being investigated by the relevant authorities."

Iran says numerous Iranian citizens are in secret detention in the United States including a former deputy defence minister who vanished in 2007. Iranian media have often linked the case of the Americans to the fate of these alleged Iranian detainees.