Iran kicks off espionage trial of US hikers

Iran's espionage trial of US hikers, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, comes ahead of the Feb. 11 anniversary of Iran's 1979 revolution and as tensions are rising over Iran's nuclear program.

Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters
Masoud Shafii, the Iranian lawyer of three detained American hikers speaks with a Reuters correspondent at his office in Tehran February 5, 2011. Two Americans, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, held in an Iranian jail for the last 18 months will finally stand trial on Sunday for espionage, a charge their lawyer is confident will be shown to have no substance.

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The espionage trial of two American hikers jailed in Iran since being arrested near the Iran-Iraq border 18 months ago began Sunday, but the hikers' lawyer said he doesn't think they will be convicted.

"I'm pretty sure they won't be convicted, because [the trial] doesn't have any legal justification," Masoud Shafii told Reuters. "Even it they are convicted, [the sentence] shouldn't be for more than what they have already spent in jail,”

Mr. Shafii said he was denied requests to see his two clients, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, as he mounted their defense.

"I have studied the case in full detail. The question of spying is irrelevant," Shafii told the Agence France-Presse.

"There is just the question of illegal entry, which even if it has happened has been inadvertent as the border was unmarked," he said.

Trial comes as anti-Americanism reaches 'fever pitch'

The trial was first set for November but then postponed until today. It comes as anti-American rhetoric is at a “fever pitch” in Iran, the AFP reports, with the Feb. 11 anniversary of the Iranian 1979 revolution approaching and animosity rising between Washington and Tehran over Iran’s nuclear program.

The trio was detained in July 2009 when hiking in Iraq’s Kurdistan. They claim that if they crossed into Iran, it was accidental. Iran, however, has pressed spying charges that could bring a sentence of 10 years, according to the Associated Press.

Bauer and Fattal have remained in jail after their third companion, Sarah Shourd, was released on medical concerns and $500,000 bail in September in an agreement arranged through Oman, which keeps close relations with both the West and Iran.

Iran has said that Ms. Shourd will forfeit the bail if she does not return for the trial, but Shafii says she is not expected to turn up, according to the BBC.

Closed-door proceedings

Observers, including the Swiss Ambassador Livia Leu Agosti who represents US interests in Iran, have been barred from today’s proceedings. Ms. Agosti told the Iranian state news agency that "I was not invited to the court and it was my decision to come. So far the authorities have not allowed me in," according to the AFP.

The Associated Press notes that, despite his anti-American rhetoric, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad might favor the hikers’ release more so than other elements in the Iranian government:

The case also highlights the power of Iran's judiciary, which is controlled directly by the nation's ruling clerics and has rejected apparent efforts by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to urge for some leniency.

But Ahmadinejad also has tried to draw attention to Iranians in US jails, raising the possibility the detainees were viewed as potential bargaining chips with Washington at a time of high-stakes showdowns over Iran's nuclear program.

Just days after her release, Shourd met Ahmadinejad while he was in New York to attend the UN General Assembly and asked for his intervention to free Bauer and Fattal.

In an interview with The Associated Press at the time, Ahmadinejad noted that while the Americans had broken the law by crossing into Iran, he would ask the judiciary to expedite the process and to "look at the case with maximum leniency."

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