TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iranian authorities have delayed the trial of two Americans arrested near the Iraqi border in July 2009, a judiciary spokesman said on Monday, less than a week before they were due their first day in court.
Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, who say they were hiking in northern Iraq and were not aware they had crossed into Iran, are at the center of a much bigger dispute between the United States and Tehran, which have been bitter foes since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Iran’s judiciary spokesman said the trial could not go ahead as scheduled because of the absence of a third suspect, Sarah Shourd, who was arrested with the men but released on $500,000 bail in September this year and returned to the United States.
“Due to the absence of the third person, the court has delayed the trial time so that in between this time the third person can return to Iran or, in the event of her refusal to appear, her case be dealt with differently,” Qolamhossein Mohseni-Ejei was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars news agency.
Their lawyer said he was not aware the trial had been postponed.
“It is illogical. If they want to delay the trial, they should announce it in a notification to me or to Sarah Shourd, but they didn’t,” Masoud Shafiee told Reuters.
“So the trial should be held on Saturday then the judge will decide whether the trial will be delayed or not.”
Shourd was released shortly before President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attended the U.N. General Assembly in New York. He said letting her leave jail was a humanitarian gesture due to concerns about her health. She denied the spying charge.
The trial delay comes as Washington and other powers are trying to prod Tehran to return to talks this month about its nuclear activities which they fear are aimed at making an atomic bomb.
Iran, which says its nuclear ambitions are peaceful, has said it is ready to restart the talks which stalled last year, but has yet to agree a date and has even suggested the talks should not address the nuclear issue.
Ahmadinejad suggested in February that the Americans might be released as part of a prisoner swap for Iranians he says have been abducted or tricked into going to the United States and jailed without due legal process.
One of those Iranians, a woman jailed for trafficking defense hardware to Iran, gave a telephone interview to Iran’s state-run English language television channel on Monday in which she said she had been tortured.
“They took me to the prison and they started to torture me in every possible way, more especially, you know, mentally,” Shahrazad Mir Gholikhan told Press TV. She did not give any further details of her ill-treatment.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said he hoped publicity about the case would help secure release of Iranian prisoners in U.S. jails. “Iran will pursue all channels regarding the matter,” he was quoted by Fars news agency as saying. He did not mention the possibility of a prisoner swap.
In October, two Germans were arrested when they tried to interview the son of a woman sentenced to be stoned to death for adultery — a case which prompted a global outcry but which Ahmadinejad said was fabricated by the media.
Mohseni-Ejei said the men, who entered Iran on tourist visa and so were not permitted to work as journalists, had asked for Islamic clemency. “They have confessed to concealment of facts and having made a mistake,” he said.
Writing by Robin Pomeroy