TEHRAN – The delayed trial of three Americans detained in Iran on spying charges held its first session on Sunday, more than 18 months after their arrest on the unmarked border with Iraq during a hiking trip.
The prosecution of Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal began at a time when anti-American rhetoric is running at fever pitch in Iran as it marks the anniversary of its February 11, 1979 Islamic revolution.
“The session is over. We will have another session. No date has been fixed for it but it will be held soon,” the Swiss ambassador to Tehran, Livia Leu Agosti, whose mission represents US interests in Iran, told AFP.
Earlier on Sunday, Agosti told Iranian state news agency IRNA that she went to the court but was “not allowed” to attend proceedings which were held behind closed doors.
Iran has dismissed repeated pleas from the United States for the release of Bauer and Fattal after it allowed Shourd to return home on bail of around 500,000 dollars last September after more than a year in detention.
Agosti confirmed to IRNA that Shourd was not present at the trial and that her absence “was her personal decision.”
Shourd, her fiance Bauer with whom she got engaged in an Iranian prison during her detention, and fellow hiker Fattal say they innocently strayed into Iran from across the unmarked border with northern Iraq when they were arrested on July 31, 2009 by Iranian authorities.
Iran has accused them of “spying and illegally entering the country.”
On Saturday, their Iranian lawyer Masoud Shafii denied the charges against them and said he would press for their “innocence” and immediate release.
He said he had been denied access to Bauer and Fattal, who are in custody, while he was building his defence.
“I have studied the case in full detail. The question of spying is irrelevant. There is just the question of illegal entry, which even if it has happened has been inadvertent as the border was unmarked,” Shafii told AFP.
He said illegal entry was punishable by a maximum three-year jail term, which could be commuted to a fine under the Iranian penal code.
Shourd, a teacher, writer and women’s rights activist, grew up in Los Angeles and later moved to Damascus where she met Bauer and reportedly worked on a project to help Iraqi students attend US colleges.
Bauer is a fluent Arabic-speaking freelance journalist who met Shourd while helping to organise anti-US demonstrations in Syria aimed at criticising the war in Iraq.
Fattal, who grew up in Pennsylvania, is an environmentalist and teacher and had travelled to Damascus in 2009 where he met Shourd and Bauer.
The trial, initially set for November 6 but postponed, coincides with heightening animosity between Washington and Tehran over Iran’s nuclear drive, a dispute punctuated by UN sanctions and strident remarks from hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Washington has repeatedly called for the trio’s release.
Soon after the release of Shourd, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that holding the other two and prosecuting them was baseless.
“We do not believe that there is any basis whatsoever for them to be put on trial and we regret that they and their families are being subjected to a criminal system that we do not think in any way reflects their actions.”
IRNA said the trial was being presided by Judge Abolqasem Salavati who has overseen a string of prosecutions involving people charged with anti-Iran activities, particularly those connected with huge street protests after a disputed June 2009 presidential election.
He also presided over the trial of French academic Clotilde Reiss, who was arrested during the election unrest and later freed after paying a fine of around 285,000 dollars.
In a separate case, Iran is holding two German journalists accused of spying after they were arrested while interviewing the son of a woman condemned to death by stoning for adultery under the country’s Islamic laws.