Tehran bars observers from espionage trial of US hikers

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The Independent Online

Iran blocked journalists and international observers from the opening of a trial for three American hikers accused of spying after they strayed over the border from Iraq in 2009.

At the five-hour hearing yesterday, Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer pleaded not guilty to espionage and trespassing, according to Iranian state media. The third American, Mr Bauer's fiancée, Sarah Shourd, was released last September on $500,000 (£311,000) bail, which will probably now be forfeited because she refused to travel back to Tehran to face trial.

The case, which has further strained relations between the United States and Iran, has been the subject of emotional appeals from the trio's families, a worldwide campaign for their release and backroom diplomatic activity involving intermediary nations such as Oman. But after 18 months, the fate of the remaining two prisoners remains uncertain.

Observers, including Switzerland's ambassador Livia Leu Agosti, who represents US interests in Iran, were barred, and the defendants' lawyer was kept from meeting with them until only a few hours before the trial began. It was also unclear when the next hearing might be, but the Swiss ambassador said she expected it soon: "It's not going to be another three-month wait."

Ms Shourd had been working as an English teacher and Mr Bauer as a freelance journalist in Damascus, Syria, when they were visited by their friend, Mr Fattal, an environmental activist. The three had met while studying at Berkeley. They were detained while hiking to the famous Ahmed Awa waterfall in Iraqi Kurdistan, just across the border from Iran. They say that if they did stray over the unmarked border into Iran, it was accidental.

Ms Shourd yesterday posted another emotional appeal for her friends' release on the campaign website set up to pressure the Iranian government.

"Shane and Josh don't deserve to be in prison one minute longer that I was, and never deserved to be there in the first place. We were living, working and travelling in the region in order to increase our knowledge of its diverse cultures, lend a hand through our humanitarian work and promote more understanding in our communities back home."

The Iranian and the US heads of state have become involved in the case, but without obvious movement. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asked the judiciary to examine the hikers' case with "the maximum leniency", while President Barack Obama said the trio had never worked for the US government. The Iranian courts are controlled by the country's ruling clerics.

US diplomats believe that Iran views the remaining prisoners as bargaining chips. The Iranian government has sought to associate the detention of the hikers with the cases of Iranians held in US prisons; when the trio's families travelled to Tehran last spring their carefully orchestrated trip included a meeting with relatives of five Iranians held for more than two years by the US military in Iraq.

Last year, Mr Fattal's mother, Laura, spoke to The Independent about how the family was consumed by the campaign to get her son and his friends released. "We are sick to our stomachs worrying about them," she said. "We don't know if they have a cold. We don't know if they have a toothache, or what treatment they are getting. We have no idea."

Ms Shourd wrote: "I've never wanted anything as badly as I want Shane and Josh to be free. I want it even more than I wanted my own freedom."