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.
A Facebook comment said: “They had to know how dangerous it was to tour the Iran-Iraq border region when they went. They are lucky they were not just executed. Let this be a lesson to anyone else who thinks doing such a thing is wise; it is only dangerous.”
Iranian state TV’s website said Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal each received three years for illegally entering Iran and five years for spying.
The two men deny the charges, saying they unknowingly crossed into the country while hiking in July 2009.
Fellow hiker Sarah Shourd was freed on US$500,000 (£314,386) bail last year.
She was released on humanitarian and medical grounds in September 2010 and flew back to the US. She did not return to face trial, saying in May she had suffered from post-traumatic stress and would find a return “too traumatic.”
The US said it was trying to confirm reports of the sentences through the Swiss Protecting Power, which handles US diplomatic interests with Tehran, because Washington does not have diplomatic relations with Iran.
“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,” US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement, “Shane and Josh have been imprisoned too long, and it is time to reunite them with their families.”
The trial began in February 2011 and Mr. Bauer, 28, and Mr. Fattal, 29, pleaded not guilty. Ms. Shourd – Mr. Bauer’s fiancee – pleaded not guilty in absentia. The trial ended on July 31, on the second anniversary of their arrest.
Sarah Shourd was released from Iran on humanitarian and medical grounds.
“In connection with illegal entry into Iranian territory, each was given three years in jail, and in connection with the charge of cooperating with American intelligence service, each was given five years in jail,” the website reported, quoting an informed judiciary source.
The report said “the case of Sarah Shourd, who has been freed on bail, is still open,” the AFP news agency says.
The men are said to have 20 days in which to appeal against the sentence.
Their lawyer, Masoud Shafii, said he had not been informed of any verdict. “I don’t know if this report is true or not, but this is not a light sentence,” he told Reuters news agency.
Mr. Bauer, a freelance journalist and fluent Arabic speaker, moved in 2008 to the Syrian capital Damascus, where he lived with Ms. Shourd, 32, a teacher, writer, and women’s rights activist. The two met while organizing demonstrations against the US-led invasion of Iraq.
Mr. Fattal, an environmentalist and teacher, had traveled to Damascus in 2009 to visit his friends.
The trio – all graduates of the University of California, Berkeley – had traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan for a week’s holiday. They had visited the tourist village of Ahmed Awa, and hiked along a trail local residents had recommended, Ms. Shourd said.
While out walking they were stopped and arrested by Iranian troops who told them they were in Iranian territory. The friends have always maintained that if they did stray into Iran, they did so mistakenly.