Two American hikers imprisoned in Iran for more than two years have been convicted of espionage and sentenced to eight years in jail, according to a news reports.
The sentences seemed unexpectedly severe coming not long after senior Iranian officials said that the men might be released soon, perhaps as a humanitarian gesture during the current holy month of Ramadan. Ali Akbar Salehi, the foreign minister, was quoted by local news media as saying he hoped the end of the trial on July 31 would lead to their freedom.
The two Americans, Shane M. Bauer and Joshua F. Fattal, both 29, have spent two years in a Tehran prison after being arrested near the border with Iraqi Kurdistan in July 2009. A third hiker, Sarah E. Shourd, was released on $500,000 bail in September 2010, and the latest report said her case remained open.
The Islamic Republic of Iran News Network, an official television channel, reported that Mr. Bauer and Mr. Fattal were sentenced to three years for entering Iran illegally and to five years for spying for the United States, a brief news report on the network’s Web site also said that they had 20 days to appeal.
On Sunday, Tehran's chief prosecutor told the ISNA news agency that the two men had 20 days to appeal the verdict.
There was still no verdict on Ms. Shourd, who was arrested with the others on July 31, 2009 near Iran's border with Iraq where they said they were hiking, Mr. Dolatabadi said, according to Reuters.
The three Americans, all graduates of the University of California, Berkeley, who were either studying or traveling in the Middle East, say they made an innocent mistake in wandering over the unmarked border, crossing when a soldier of unknown nationality waved to them to approach. They were only then told they had crossed into Iran and were arrested, Ms. Shourd, who is Mr. Bauer’s fiancée, has said.
Iran has never publicly presented any evidence of their spying, and Mr. Bauer and Mr. Fattal have entered a plea of not guilty. Masoud Shafiei, their lawyer, said in a telephone interview that he had not been informed of the verdict and would seek confirmation on Sunday.
The television news channel is close to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, however, and it would not be unusual for the news to leak out in this manner. The network attributed the report to an unidentified informed source within the judiciary.
In Washington, the State Department said that it was seeking confirmation via the Swiss Embassy in Iran, which represents American interests there. “We have repeatedly called for the release of Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, who have now been held in Iran’s Evin Prison for two years,” the statement said. “Shane and Josh have been imprisoned too long, and it is time to reunite them with their families.”
Ms. Shourd and the families of the two men declined to comment.
Mr. Shafiei said he had anticipated that the two might be convicted only of entering the country illegally and sentenced to time served. Speculation about the sentences, if confirmed, pointed to several issues.
First, Iran has said it seeks the freedom of about 10 Iranians it says are jailed in the United States. A heavy sentence, analysts said, would give the two Americans more weight as bargaining chips.
Another theory holds that the sentences could be a reaction to a recent letter to President Obama signed by 92 senators demanding that Washington seek sanctions against the Iranian Central Bank as a way to curb Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Finally, the case has attracted negative publicity for Iran, with all the attention focused on the distressed mothers of the two men.
If Tehran is still planning to make a “humanitarian gesture” in releasing them, then a harsher sentence would make the move appear all the more magnanimous, Iranian analysts said.
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