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Iranian authorities have arrested two Germans who entered Iran on tourist visas allegedly to interview the family of a woman sentenced to death by stoning.
The pair was arrested Sunday while talking to the lawyer and son of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who Iranian authorities accuse of adultery. Ms. Ashtiani's case has been the source of much international outrage and her sentence was suspended in July, but now Iranian officials are considering hanging her for the murder of her late husband, reports the BBC. Her lawyers insist she is innocent of all charges.
The detention of the two foreigners reportedly investigating her case is certain to escalate tensions between Iran and Germany, in particular, but also between Iran and other Western nations. Since the election protests during the summer of 2009, Iran has made it extremely difficult for foreign media to get visas, shutting the country further off from the world.
Though Iran has accused the pair of being activists rather than journalists, there is speculation among German observers that they could have been working for Bild am Sonntag. The German newspaper has denied reports that any of their employees were arrested in Iran, and it remains unclear if the two had any official ties to a media organization.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said today the government is working to free the pair, reports Bloomberg. The German Foreign Ministry has established a taskforce to handle the case. The taskforce had initially been working in secret to secure the release of the two foreigners, but after the Iranian media made the case public authorities fear that negotiations will be prolonged, reports Germany’s Der Spiegel.
Politically, the arrest could hardly come at a worse time. Relations between Germany and the regime in Tehran are icy because of the ongoing dispute over Iran's nuclear program. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also recently held an inflammatory speech before the UN General Assembly. Given such a political climate, even optimists in the Foreign Ministry believe that arranging the release of two German nationals, whether or not they violated Iranian law, will be a sensitive challenge.
Meanwhile Iran has taken a hard-line against the two. Iran’s state-run Press TV ran an article Monday about the pair titled “Iran arrests two fake foreign journalists.” The report went on to explain that authorities were alerted about the foreigners by a suspicious person close to Ashtinani’s family.
"It turned out that the two people were not journalists – or that they had no proof for it, and had entered the country as tourists. [They] had asked Ms. Mohammadi's family … questions," according to judiciary spokesman Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei. Iranian officials then moved into arrest them.
“Based on the official statement released by the judiciary, these two foreign nationals entered the country on tourist visas, not working visas,” said Ghanbar Naderi, a reporter for the government newspaper the Iran Daily, in an interview with Al Jazeera. “Basically, they are not journalists. When they were arrested they did not produce any document to prove they were journalists. If you are a journalist, you need to get permission from the government to conduct any reports.”
Ashtiani’s son, Sajad, and her lawyer, Houtan Kian, are also said to be missing and presumably detained. Ashtiani’s family has confirmed that no one has heard from Sajad or the attorney since the detention of the two foreigners, reports the Guardian.
“I’m very worried about them because Germany has been very outspoken about the human rights abuses in Iran and Iran might keep them for a long time for a retaliation, like they did with the French academic Clotilde Reiss,” said Mina Ahadi, from Iran's Committee Against Stoning. She claims to have been on the phone with the pair during the arrest.