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Iran charges three Americans with espionage

Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Joshua Fattal were arrested during what their families describe as a hiking expedition near the Iran-Iraq border. U.S. officials urge Tehran to 'exercise compassion.'

November 10, 2009|Borzou Daragahi and Liz Sly

DOHA, QATAR, AND BAGHDAD — Iran's president on Monday likened three Americans held in his country on possible espionage charges to drivers violating city traffic rules, saying he hoped they would have a "good response" to the court proceedings and "convince the judge that they had no ill intentions."

Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 31, and Joshua Fattal, 27, who were arrested by Iranian authorities in July during what their families say was a hiking expedition in northern Iraq near the border with Iran, face espionage charges, a leading Iranian judiciary official said Monday.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in Turkey for a summit, was asked about their fate during a news conference in Istanbul. He said the three had violated the law and would have to face the consequences.

"If a number of drivers keep crossing red lights in a city and disrupt traffic in city, would you ask the police not to give them a ticket for humanitarian concerns?" Ahmadinejad told reporters in an exchange broadcast by Iranian state television. "Illegal crossing of borders has heavy punishment in all countries."

Abbas Jafari-Dolatabadi, the powerful Tehran public prosecutor, told the official Islamic Republic News Agency that the three were charged with espionage and an investigation was ongoing. Their status will be announced "in the not-too-distant future."

The three went missing July 31 in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, which borders Iran.

They took a taxi from the town of Sulaymaniya to the scenic waterfall of Ahmed Awa, a renowned picnicking spot, then apparently hiked far beyond the waterfall and at some point entered Iran across an unmarked border.

Tehran officials say the three were arrested after crossing illegally into Iran.

A fourth member of the group, Shon Meckfessel, who stayed behind at the hotel because he was sick, later wrote that the group had no idea the waterfall was near the Iranian border, and thought it was in the opposite direction. He alerted U.S. officials after receiving a call from Bauer saying the group had been surrounded by armed men and were being taken into custody.

Relations between Iran and the U.S., already strained over a long-standing dispute about the nature of Tehran's nuclear program, worsened after weeks of unrest sparked by the disputed June 12 reelection of Ahmadinejad.

Tehran accuses the U.S. and other Western nations of inciting the protests.

Top Obama administration officials Monday condemned the charges but drew no connection between the fate of the hikers and U.S. policy objectives that seek a negotiated settlement over control of Tehran's nuclear program.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the hikers were "innocent young people who should be released by the Iranian government, and their release should be expedited."

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in an appearance in Germany, addressed the charges against the hikers, saying, "There is no evidence to support any charge whatsoever."

The three hikers were allowed to send messages to their families last week via the Swiss Embassy, which officially represents U.S. interests in Iran.

"I know you are fighting for me and it makes me proud," Shourd wrote in a letter. "I am hanging in there with you."

Shourd's relatives on Monday said they'd had almost no information about the detainees since their arrest.

"Today's news is disappointing," said Shourd's uncle Mike Sandys, "but we're trying to put some positive perspective on it by saying at least it may move the process forward.

"We will continue efforts to convince the Iranians and anyone else that these were vacationing hikers who apparently stumbled across the border by accident," Sandys said. "We think they have served more than enough time for accidentally crossing the border."

Family and friends of the captives held a vigil for the hikers Sunday, their 100th day of detention.

Jafari-Dolatabadi also said that French researcher Clotilde Reiss, 24, would soon stand trial.

Reiss was arrested July 1 as she tried to leave Tehran after spending several months as a French teacher in the central Iranian city of Esfahan. She appeared in one of the televised trials during Iran's unrest, accused of espionage.

--

daragahi@latimes.com

liz.sly@latimes.com

Times staff writers Paloma Esquivel in Costa Mesa and Christi Parsons and Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.

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