Iran sentences two American hikers to eight years in prison for spying

AMERICAN citizens Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, detained in Iran for more than two years, have been convicted of spying and sentenced to eight years in jail.

Bauer and Fattal, both 28, have been sentenced to three years each for illegal entry into Iran and five years each for spying for the United States. It’s not clear if that includes time served. They have 20 days to appeal the sentence.

Bauer and Fattal were arrested on 31 July, 2009 near Iran’s border with Iraq, along with a third American, Sarah Shourd, who was freed on $500,000 (£304,000) bail in September 2010 and returned home.

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The trio, in their 20s and early 30s, say they were hiking in the mountains of northern Iraq and that if they crossed the unmarked border into Iran, then it was by mistake.

The affair has increased tension between Tehran and Washington, which have had no diplomatic relations since the storming of the US embassy after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Bauer and Fattal pleaded not guilty at a closed-door court hearing on 6 February and had been awaiting a verdict following another trial hearing on 31 July.

Their lawyer, Masoud Shafiee, said he had not been informed of the verdict. “I don’t know if this report is true or not, but this is not a light sentence,” he said.

In Iran, espionage can carry the death penalty, but Shafiee had hoped that – at worst – his clients would be convicted of illegal entry and might then be freed due to the two years already served. The report added that “the case of Sarah Shourd, who has been freed on bail is still open”.

Media have speculated that the pair could be released as a goodwill gesture during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which is under way.

Shourd is being tried in absentia after she returned to the US when she was freed on humanitarian and medical grounds last September, paying bail of about $500,000.

The case has further complicated relations between Iran and the United States, which are strained over Iran nuclear programme. Washington accuses Iran of pursuing nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes.

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The three Americans, who are all anti-war, social justice and Palestinian solidarity activists who were living in the Middle East, were on holiday in Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region of Iraq free from the sectarian struggle that dominates much of Iraq, in July 2009. They had been advised of the suitability of the region for a holiday by friends who had been there and were recommended to visit the Ahmed Awa waterfall, a popular Kurdish tourist destination.

After visiting it, they continued walking within what they believed to be Iraqi Kurdistan, up to and including the time they were detained by Iranian border guards.

Iran disputes their claims and said that they had been walking on the Iranian side of the border.