TEHRAN (AFP) - The much-delayed trial of three young Americans accused of spying against Iran opened on Sunday, more than 18 months after they were arrested on the unmarked border with Iraq while on a hiking trip.
The prosecution of Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal comes at a time when anti-American rhetoric is at fever pitch in Iran as it marks the anniversary of its 1979 Islamic revolution on February 11.
Sources close to the lawyer of the trio said the trial, held in a closed session, had commenced.
Swiss ambassador Livia Leu Agosti -- whose mission represents US interests in Iran -- was barred from attending, sources close to the proceedings said.
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.
She is likely being tried in absentia.
Shourd, her fiance Bauer with whom she got engaged in an Iranian prison, and fellow hiker Fattal say they innocently strayed into Iran from across the unmarked border with northern Iraq when they were detained 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, when he was building his defence.
"I should have met with Shane and Josh to prepare the defence, but I was not allowed," Shafii told AFP on Saturday.
"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 said.
"They are not at all at fault," he said, adding that illegal entry is punishable by a maximum three-year jail term which can also be commuted to a fine under the Iranian penal code.
Shafii indicated that Shourd was unlikely to appear in court.
"All the signs indicate that she will not be there. She has prepared a statement which has been delivered to me through the Swiss embassy," he said.
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 organising 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 later postponed to Sunday, 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 Mahmud 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," she said.
"So it's our continuing request to the Iranian government that, just as they released the young woman, that they release these two young men."
The trial is 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 the 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