Two US 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, a sharp blow to hopes their release was imminent.
The announcement on Saturday 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 US citizens 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 UN.
Authorities did not immediately confirm the report and made no further comment — although it was carried on Iran’s highly controlled state media, which is frequently used to make high-profile announcements.
In Washington, Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland restated US 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 were awaiting confirmation.
The two men, 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 US citizen, Sarah Shourd, who was released in September last year on US$500,000 bail and returned to the US.
Shourd’s case “is still open,” the state-run TV Web site www.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 US, the Web site 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 he will definitely appeal the sentence if true.
“I’ve not been notified of any verdict in the case of my clients,” Shafiei said. “This is a strong verdict inconsistent with the charges.”
It’s unclear what maximum sentence was possible by the Revolutionary Court, which handles state security issues. Espionage can bring the death penalty, but handing the sentence to a foreigner is unknown legal territory in Iran.
Iran insists that its judiciary is independent from political currents, but Iranian officials have used the detained Americans to draw attention to alleged mistreatment of Iranians in US prisons and others who were held by US forces in Iraq.
The report on the sentences came just two days after US President Barack Obama made his most direct call for the resignation of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who remains among Iran’s closest Middle East allies.
The case, meanwhile, has added to tensions between the US and Iran that were already high over other issues, including Tehran’s disputed nuclear program.
However, Iran also recognizes the potential for goodwill gestures. Shourd’s release — assisting with talks by Oman — came last year as Ahmadinejad was preparing for the annual UN gathering of world leaders.