Tehran — Associated Press via San Fransisco Gate
By Ali Akbar Dareini
Two American men arrested more than two years ago while hiking along the Iraq-Iran border have been sentenced to eight years in prison on charges that include espionage, state TV reported Saturday, a sharp blow to hopes their release was imminent.
The announcement seemed to send a hard-line message from Iran’s judiciary – which answers directly to the ruling clerics – weeks after the country’s foreign minister suggested that the trial of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal could clear the way for their freedom.
It also was likely to raise speculation about Iran using the Americans, both UC Berkeley graduates, as political bargaining chips, and could bring added tensions to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s expected visit to New York next month for the annual General Assembly at the United Nations.
In Washington, State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland restated U.S. appeals for their release.
“It is time to reunite them with their families,” she said.
A spokeswoman for the men’s relatives said only that the families were aware of the report and awaiting confirmation. “They are asking for privacy during this difficult time,” Samantha Topping said.
The Americans, whose final court hearing was three weeks ago, deny the charges and say they were only hiking in a scenic and largely peaceful area of northern Iraq near the porous border.
They were detained in July 2009 along with a third American, Sarah Shourd, who was released in September 2010 on $500,000 bail and returned to the United States. Shourd’s case “is still open,” the state-run TV website irinn.ir reported.
Bauer and Fattal, both 29, have been sentenced to three years each for illegal entry into Iran and five years each for spying for the United States, the website quoted “informed sources” at Iran’s judiciary as saying. It was not immediately clear if that includes time served. They have 20 days to appeal the sentence.
Their Iranian attorney, Masoud Shafiei, said he had not been notified of the verdict but will definitely appeal.
The Americans say they mistakenly crossed into Iran when they stepped off a dirt road while hiking near a waterfall in the Kurdish region of Iraq. While other parts of Iraq remain troubled by violence, the semiautonomous Kurdish north has drawn tourists in recent years, including foreigners.
Earlier this month, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said he hoped “the trial of the two American defendants who were detained for the crime of illegally entering Iran will finally lead to their freedom.” Their lawyer also had expressed hope they might receive a pardon for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Shourd is back living in Oakland; Bauer grew up in Onamia, Minn.; and Fattal is from suburban Philadelphia.
Their case most closely parallels that of freelance journalist Roxana Saberi, an Iranian American who was convicted of spying before being released in May 2009. Saberi was sentenced to eight years in prison, but an appeals court reduced that to a two-year suspended sentence and let her return to the United States.
At the time, a spokesman for the Iranian judiciary said the court ordered the reduction as a gesture of “Islamic mercy” because Saberi had cooperated with authorities and expressed regret.