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Iran opens trial of 3 Americans on spy charges
TEHRAN (AP) — Two Americans accused of spying appeared in a closed-door Iranian court session Sunday to begin trial after an 18-month detention that has brought impassioned family appeals, a stunning bail deal to free their companion and backdoor diplomatic outreach by Washington through an Arab ally in the Gulf.
All three — two in person and one in absentia — entered not guilty pleas during the five-hour hearing, said their lawyer, Masoud Shafiei.
He added that he was barred by Iranian law from giving any further details of the proceedings. But he noted that the judge decided for at least one more session in Tehran Revolutionary Court, which deals with state security cases, including some of the high-profile opposition figures arrested in the violent aftermath of Iran‘s disputed election in 2009.
“I hoped the case would have ended today,” Mr. Shafiei told the Associated Press. “I now hope they fix the next session for the near future.”
The case highlights the power of Iran‘s judiciary, which is controlled directly by the nation’s ruling clerics and has rejected apparent appeals by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to show some leniency.
But Mr. Ahmadinejad also has tried to draw attention to Iranians in U.S. jails, raising the possibility the detainees have been viewed as potential bargaining chips with Washington at a time of high-stakes showdowns over Iran‘s nuclear program.
The third American, Mr. Bauer’s fiancee, Sarah Shourd, was released in September on $500,000 bail arranged through the Gulf nation of Oman, which maintains close ties to both the West and Iran. She was ordered back to Tehran for the trial by Iranian officials, and the bail likely will be forfeited because of her absence.
Iran, however, pressed forward with spy charges that could bring a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison if convicted.
Miss Shourd and Mr. Bauer had been living together in Damascus, Syria, where Mr. Bauer was working as a freelance journalist and Miss Shourd as an English teacher. Mr. Fattal, an environmental activist, went to visit them in July 2009, shortly before their trip to northern Iraq.
The families of the detainees have made high-profile appeals for their release, including during a visit by the three mothers to Tehran in May. The trip, however, was carefully orchestrated by Iranian authorities and included a meeting between the mothers and relatives of five Iranians held for more than two years by the U.S. military in Iraq.
In an interview with the Associated Press at the time, Mr. 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.”
By Tom Fitton
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