TEHRAN Two Americans held in Iran for more than two years have been convicted as spies and sentenced to eight years' jail, Iranian TV reported on Saturday, a verdict that will further strain already very poor relations with Washington.
Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal were arrested on July 31, 2009 near Iran's border with Iraq, along with a third American, Sarah Shourd, who was freed on $500,000 bail in September 2010 and returned home.
The trio, in their late 20s and early 30s, say they were hiking in the mountains of northern Iraq and, if they crossed the unmarked border into Iran, it was by mistake.
"In connection with illegal entry into Iranian territory each was given three years in jail and in connection with the charge of cooperating with American intelligence service, each was given five years in jail," a state TV website said, quoting what it called an informed judiciary source.
They have 20 days to appeal, it said.
The United States, which does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, said it was trying to confirm the report through the Swiss Protecting Power, which handles U.S. diplomatic interests with Tehran.
"We have repeatedly called for the release of Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, who have now been held in Iran's Evin prison for two years. Shane and Josh have been imprisoned too long, and it is time to reunite them with their families," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
HOPES OF CLEMENCY
The affair has heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington, which severed diplomatic ties after the storming of the U.S. embassy in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The verdict was announced as Russia launches a fresh attempt to find a diplomatic solution to a standoff over Tehran's nuclear program, which Washington says is aimed at making nuclear bombs, something Iran denies.
The boxer Muhammad Ali and pop singer Yusuf Islam, both Western converts to Islam, are among those who have called for the Americans' release.
A Facebook page called "Free the Hikers" brimmed with comments expressing shock and disgust with the reported ruling, and offering prayers for the jailed young men.
President Barack Obama has denied that the Americans, who were working in the Middle East when they decided to hike in the scenic mountains of Iraq, had any link to U.S. intelligence.
Bauer and Fattal, who share a cell in Tehran's notorious Evin jail, pleaded not guilty at a closed-door court hearing on February 6 and had been awaiting a verdict following another trial hearing on July 31.
Their lawyer, Masoud Shafiee, told Reuters he had not been informed of the verdict and declined to say whether he would appeal, pending official confirmation. "I don't know if this report is true or not, but this is not a light sentence," he said.
In Iran, espionage can carry the death penalty but Shafiee had hoped that at worst his clients would be convicted of illegal entry and might then be freed due to the two years they have already served.
Media had speculated that the pair could be freed as a goodwill gesture during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan which began on August 1. Hopes for their release were raised on August 6 when Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said he hoped the trial would "advance in a way that would lead to their freedom."
But Prosecutor General Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei, giving no hint of clemency, told reporters on Monday he had not heard of "rumors" that the men would be released during Ramadan.
It remains possible that Muslim clemency could be granted, as is traditional, at the end of the fasting month, which will be toward the end of next week.
(Writing by Robin Pomeroy; Additional reporting by Paul Eckert, Editing by Alistair Lyon and Sandra Maler)