Iran holds 2 Germans linked to stoning case

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TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran on Tuesday accused two detained Germans of having links to Iranian exile groups after they were arrested reportedly while trying to interview the son of a woman sentenced to death by stoning for adultery.

The stoning sentence against the woman, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, raised an international outcry, embarrassing Tehran. The arrest of the two Germans suggested how sensitive the government is over the case — and the claim that they are connected to Tehran’s bitter opponents abroad raised the possibility they could face future security-related charges.

In Berlin, the German Journalists' Association said the two Germans are journalists — a reporter and a photographer — who were interviewing Ms. Ashtiani’s son, Sajjad Qaderzadeh, when they were arrested on Sunday. The union also did not name the journalists.

But Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast, confirming the arrests, said Monday that “it is not clear whether they are journalists.”

He said the two Germans were arrested as they approached Ms. Ashtiani’s house in the northwestern Iranian city of Tabriz. The 43-year-old mother of two is in prison in Tabriz, waiting for the judiciary to decide her fate. The son apparently lives in his mother’s home.

“Since they had links with foreign-based counterrevolutionary networks, they were arrested and the case is under review,” Mr. Mehmanparast added. He said an Iranian anti-government group that “facilitated the interview is based in Germany.” Many exiled Iranian opposition groups have offices in Germany.

The whereabouts of Mr. Qaderzadeh and his mother’s lawyer, Houtan Kian, were not immediately known and their cell phones have been switched off since the Germans’ arrest, possible indications that they too are in custody.

Ms. Ashtiani was first convicted in May 2006 of having an “illicit relationship” with two men after the death of her husband — for which a court in Tabriz sentenced her to 99 lashes. Later that year she was also convicted of adultery, despite having retracted a confession, which she claims was made under duress. She was sentenced to death by stoning for the adultery conviction.

After an international uproar over the sentence, Iran temporarily suspended the stoning verdict against Ms. Ashtiani, but says no definite decision has yet been made about her case.

The Germans’ arrests will almost certainly elevate tensions between Iran and the West, already running high over suspicions about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her government was seeking their release.

“We have a great interest in the two citizens being freed,” Mrs. Merkel said during a visit to Bucharest, Romania. “The Foreign Ministry is doing everything within the range of our capabilities.”

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said during a visit to New York that he had asked his Iranian counterpart to take care of the case personally and that a team from the German Embassy would go to Tabriz to try to see the detainees, the German news agency DAPD reported.

Iran has also been holding two American men in prison for 14 months, adding to strains with the U.S.

Tehran initially said the two Americans crossed the border illegally from Iraq but later charged them with spying. The U.S. government and their families say the two were innocent hikers and if they strayed across the border, it was inadvertent.

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