Iran has blocked journalists and international observers from the opening of the trial of three American hikers accused of spying.
The hikers strayed over the border from Iraq in 2009.
At the five-hour hearing yesterday, Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer pleaded not guilty to espionage and trespassing, according to Iranian state media.
The third American, Bauer’s fiancee, Sarah Shourd, was released last September on US$500,000 ($648,960) bail, which she is likely to forfeit because she refused to travel back to Tehran to face trial.
The case, which has further strained relations between the United States and Iran, has prompted appeals from the trio’s families, a worldwide campaign for their release and backroom diplomatic activity involving intermediary nations such as Oman.
But after 18 months, the fate of the remaining two prisoners remains uncertain.
Observers, including Switzerland’s ambassador, Livia Leu Agosti, who represents US interests in Iran, were barred, and the defendants’ lawyer was kept from meeting them until only a few hours before the trial began. It was unclear when the next hearing might be, but Agosti said: “It’s not going to be another three-month wait.”
Shourd had been working as an English teacher and Bauer as a freelance journalist in Damascus, Syria, when they were visited by their friend Fattal, an environmental activist. The three had met while studying at Berkeley.
They were detained while hiking to the famous Ahmed Awa waterfall in Iraqi Kurdistan, just over the border from Iran. They say if they did stray over the unmarked border into Iran, it was accidental.
Shourd yesterday posted another appeal for her friends’ release on a website set up to pressure the Iranian Government.
“Shane and Josh don’t deserve to be in prison one minute longer than I was, and never deserved to be there in the first place. We were living, working and travelling in the region in order to increase our knowledge of its diverse cultures, lend a hand through our humanitarian work and promote more understanding in our communities back home.”
Iranian and US heads of state are involved in the case, but without obvious movement.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asked the judiciary to examine the hikers’ case with “the maximum leniency”, and President Barack Obama said the trio had never worked for the US Government. Iranian courts are controlled by the country’s ruling clerics.
US diplomats believe the remaining prisoners are seen as bargaining chips.
The Iranian Government has associated the case with instances of Iranians held in US prisons.
When the trio’s families travelled to Tehran last year, their carefully orchestrated trip included a meeting with relatives of five Iranians held for more than two years by the US military in Iraq.