Eight-year sentence of US hikers could send US-Iran relations to new low

An Iranian court has sentenced American hikers Shane Bauer and Joshua Fatta to eight years in prison for illegally crossing the Iraq-Iran border and committing espionage.

Detained Americans Shane Bauer (l.) and Joshua Fattal smile as they wait to meet their mothers at the Esteghlal hotel in Tehran, in this May 21, 2010 file picture. Bauer and Fattal, detained in Iran for more than two years, have been found guilty of spying and given sentences of eight years each, which stands to inflame already tense US-Iran relations.

After holding two American hikers for more than two years, an Iranian court has sentenced them to eight years in prison for illegally crossing the Iraq-Iran border and committing espionage. The two men and their supporters say they are innocent.

Since the two – Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal – were originally incarcerated along with a third American, Sarah Shourd, their families and the US government have worked to ensure their release. Today’s news is likely to send diplomatic relations between Iran and the US to historic lows.

“We are deeply disappointed that Iranian judicial authorities have sentenced Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal to eight years in prison,” said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “We continue to call and work for their immediate release – it is time for them to return home and be reunited with their families.”

Mr. Bauer and Mr. Fattal were sentenced on Sunday, while Ms. Shourd – who was arrested with the two on July 31, 2009 – was released for medical reasons last September and returned to the US. Her case remains open and Iranian prosecutors may try her in absentia.

The three say they were hiking in Iraq’s picturesque mountains in the Kurdish region and did not mean to illegally cross the border. The US has strongly denied that the three were acting as spies. Despite the conviction, Iran has yet to make public any evidence that the three were anything more than unlucky hikers, reports The Los Angeles Times.

Surprisingly harsh sentence

The sentence seemed “unexpectedly severe” following indications from senior Iranian officials that the two men would be released soon, reports The New York Times.

Ali Akbar Salehi, the foreign minister, made comments in the local media that Iranian government would likely set the two hikers free by July 31. Other officials implied that the men might be freed during the holy month of Ramadan as a charitable goodwill gesture.

"It's a very strange verdict and I was very surprised," said Masoud Shafii, the men’s attorney, in a phone interview with the Wall Street Journal. “But I plan to use every legal means I can to change it, because I believe they are innocent.”

Mr. Shafii says he has yet to see any evidence indicating their guilt and he plans to appeal the court’s decision.

Hikers' families react

“Of the 751 days of Shane and Josh's imprisonment, yesterday and today have been the most difficult for our families,” said the families of the hikers in an article by CNN. “Shane and Josh are innocent and have never posed any threat to the Islamic Republic of Iran, its government or its people.”

Despite the conviction, it is still possible that Bauer and Fattal could be released as a goodwill gesture with their punishment being time already served. Iranian law allows for 20 days to appeal the conviction.

Next month, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is scheduled to visit New York for the United Nation’s General Assembly. The conviction is likely to add a layer of tension to his time in the US and meetings with US officials, reports the Associated Press.

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