TEHRAN (Reuters) - Two German newspaper reporters arrested in Iran as they interviewed the son of a woman sentenced to death by stoning are being held on espionage charges, judiciary officials were quoted as saying on Tuesday.
Iran had initially accused the Germans, who entered the country on tourist visas, of working illegally as reporters when they interviewed the son of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, whose death sentence for adultery sparked global outrage.
But the head of the judiciary in Eastern Azerbaijan province said they faced charges of spying, a crime which carries heavy penalties and can be punishable by death.
“The espionage charge for the two German citizens who came to Iran to stage propaganda and spying has been approved,” Malekajdar Sharifi was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars news agency.
The German foreign ministry had earlier declined to comment on the nature of the men’s work or the espionage charges, but Bild am Sonntag later confirmed reports the two were indeed reporters for the weekly newspaper.
“For over a month we have been worried about two reporters from Bild am Sonntag who have been detained in Iran,” Editor-in-Chief Walter Mayer said in a statement. “We are doing all in our power to help the colleagues and their families.”
The case has added to strains between Iran and the West as diplomats are talking about resuming negotiations in the coming weeks on Iran’s nuclear programme, which some countries believe is aimed at making a bomb — an allegation Tehran denies.
The stoning sentence for adultery received global media attention, with the EU calling it “barbaric,” the Vatican pleading for clemency and Brazil offering Ashtiani asylum.
In an interview with U.S. television in September, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denied Ashtiani was ever sentenced to be stoned and accused foreign media of whipping up the story to discredit Iran.
But Sharifi said the stoning sentence had been issued.
“There are various rumors around the Sakineh Mohammadi case and some propaganda has been seen in the media, but the truth is she that has been condemned to stoning for adultery,” he said.
“The delay in carrying out the sentence is because it is a heavy sentence and the case is going through the legal procedure and the execution of the sentence has not been ordered yet.”
A foreign ministry spokesman said in September that the stoning sentence had been suspended but that Ashtiani could be hanged if sentenced for complicity in the murder of her husband.
Iranian television aired an interview with the Germans on Monday in which they said they had been deceived by an Iranian activist in Germany who had persuaded them to do the interview.
Additional reporting by Ramin Mostafavi and by Stephen Brown and Brian Rohan in Berlin; Writing by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Charles Dick