Three U.S. hikers, captured in Iran, are at the center of a war of words this week, with initial reports suggesting they would be charged with espionage, but subsequent statements saying they would be prosecuted for entering the country illegally.
“The crime they committed is of illegally entering Iranian territory. The other things are at the level of accusations,” Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told reporters, indicating that the three hikers might not have been charged with espionage as previously reported, according to the Agence France-Presse.
“The judiciary is examining their case … but what is important is the verdict which will be pronounced against them,” Mottaki said.
Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 31, and Josh Fattal, 27, were captured near the Iraq border on July 31. Their families have said they accidentally wandered into the country.
On Monday, Tehran’s chief prosecutor Abbas Jaffari Doulatabadi was quoted by state news agency IRNA as saying the three Americans faced “accusations of spying” and that the investigation was continuing.
But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters in Germany that there was no evidence to support any charges. “And we would renew our request on the behalf of these three young people and their families that the Iranian government exercise compassion and release them so they can return home.”
The families of the three hikers also refute the accusation that they were spying: “It is entirely at odds with the people Shane, Sarah and Josh are and with anything that Iran can have learned about them since they were detained on July 31,” the families said in a statement.
Cindy Hickey, the mother of Shane Bauer, said her son — a freelance journalist — would “fall on the floor laughing” at the suggestion he is a spy, reported the Associated Press.
She added that her family is trying not to get drawn into the politics between the United States and Iran.
When asked if he thought the hikers were spies, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is attending a conference in Turkey, said, “I have nothing to say about it. I have no opinion about it. It must be judged by the judiciary, whether they are spies or not. There are some Iranians who have spent many years in prison without doing anything wrong, in American prisons,” quoted the AP.