Iran to Put American Hikers on Trial, Official Says

BY Robert Zeliger  December 14, 2009 at 2:15 PM EST

Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Monday that three American hikers who “illegally” entered Iran in July would go on trial, though he did not specify when.

Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 31, and Josh Fattal, 27, were arrested on July 31 after crossing into Iran from Iraq’s Kurdish region. Mottaki said their crime was entering the country illegally. He had said earlier that they faced other charges as well, the most serious being espionage.

“Interrogation of the three Americans who have illegally entered Iran with suspicious aims is ongoing,” Mottaki told a news conference aired on state television, quoted the Agence France-Presse. “They will be put on trial by the judiciary and rulings will be made.”

“We consider this a totally unfounded charge,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, according to the Associated Press. “There is no basis for it. The three young people who were detained by the Iranians have absolutely no connection with any kind of action against the Iranian state or government.”

Abbas Milani, director of Stanford University’s Iran Studies Program and co-director the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution, said the Iranian government is likely using the trio as a “bargaining chip” as the United States and other countries press Iran for more disclosure in its nuclear program.

“To me, the charge [of espionage] means little. They are tools,” he said. “If they charge them, they could exchange them or release them and show mercy.” In addition, the government might be trying to stoke anti-U.S. sentiment in order to rile up its base, Milani said. They are trying to counter the opposition movement, whose anti-government protests since the disputed June presidential election have drawn thousands and undermined the government’s legitimacy. By charging the hikers with espionage, Milani said, “domestically, they are showing they are continuing their unabashed confrontation with the United States.” The hikers are being held at Evin prison in separate cells, and their families have repeatedly called for their release. Tehran has accused Washington of abducting Shahram Amiri, an Iranian nuclear scientist who went missing in Saudi Arabia during a Muslim pilgrimage, and Iranian media has published a list of 11 Iranians they said were being held by the United States or other countries. The charges against the Americans were announced after Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made a speech denouncing what he called “former brothers” (clerical leaders of the opposition) and accused them of turning anti-election protests into a fight against the system. He promised they would be destroyed, reported the [Financial Times](http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/bc97800c-e833-11de-8a02-00144feab49a,dwp_uuid=be75219e-940a-11da-82ea-0000779e2340.html?ftcamp=rss).