TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Two Americans accused of spying appeared in a closed-door Iranian court session Sunday to begin trial after an 18-month detention that has brought impassioned family appeals, a stunning bail deal to free their companion and backdoor diplomatic outreach by Washington through an Arab ally in the Gulf.

All three — two in person and one in absentia — entered not guilty pleas during the five-hour hearing, said their lawyer, Masoud Shafiei.

He added that he was barred by Iranian law from giving any further details of the proceedings. But he noted that the judge decided for at least one more session in Tehran Revolutionary Court, which deals with state security cases including some of the high-profile opposition figures arrested in the violent aftermath of Iran’s disputed election in 2009.

He described the jailed Americans — Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal — as appearing in good health and said they sat next to him during the trial session.

“I hoped the case would have ended today,” Shafiei told The Associated Press. “I now hope they fix the next session for the near future.”

The case highlights the power of Iran’s judiciary, which is controlled directly by the nation’s ruling clerics and has rejected apparent appeals by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to show some leniency.

But Ahmadinejad has also tried to draw attention to Iranians in U.S. jails, raising the possibility the detainees have been viewed as potential bargaining chips with Washington at a time of high-stakes showdowns over Iran’s nuclear program.

Court authorities imposed a blanket ban on observers, including Swiss Ambassador Livia Leu Agosti, who represents U.S. interests in Iran in the absence of direct diplomatic relations.

The third American, Bauer’s fiancee, Sarah Shourd, was released in September on $500,000 bail arranged through the Gulf nation of Oman, which maintains close ties to the West and Iran. She was ordered back to Tehran for the trial by Iranian officials and the bail will likely be forfeited because of her absence.

The Americans were detained in July 2009 along the Iraqi border. They claim they were hiking in Iraq’s Kurdistan region and that if they crossed into Iran it was inadvertent.

Iran, however, pressed forward with spy charges that could bring a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison if convicted.

Shourd and Bauer had been living together in Damascus, Syria, where Bauer was working as a freelance journalist and Shourd as an English teacher. Fattal, an environmental activist, went to visit them in July 2009 shortly before their trip to northern Iraq.

The families of the detainees have made high-profile appeals for their release, including during a visit by the three mothers to Tehran in May. The trip, however, was carefully orchestrated by Iranian authorities and included a meeting between the mothers and relatives of five Iranians held for more than two years by the U.S. military in Iraq.

Just days after her release, Shourd met Ahmadinejad while he was in New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly and asked for his intervention to free Bauer and Fattal.

In an interview with The Associated Press at the time, Ahmadinejad noted that while the Americans had broken the law by crossing into Iran, he would ask the judiciary to expedite the process and to “look at the case with maximum leniency.”

Yet Ahmadinejad also has used the case to draw attention to Iranians held in the United States.

In particular, he drew a link to the trial in the U.S. of Amir Hossein Ardebili, an Iranian who was sentenced to five years in prison last year after pleading guilty to plotting to ship sensitive U.S. military technology to Iran.

According to court papers, Ardebili worked as a procurement agent for the Iranian government and acquired thousands of components, including military aircraft parts, night vision devices, communications equipment and Kevlar body armor. U.S. authorities targeted him in 2004 after he contacted an undercover storefront set up in Philadelphia to investigate illegal arms trafficking.

The current case in Tehran recalls that of American-Iranian journalist Roxanna Saberi, who was arrested in Iran in January 2009 and convicted of espionage and sentenced to eight years in prison. She was freed on appeal in May 2009.

A political analyst at the independent Mardomsalari newspaper in Tehran, Hamid Reza Shokouhi, said the secretive nature of the court proceedings is “not necessarily a negative point” for the jailed Americans. He said that past experiences, such as Saberi’s case, showed that the judiciary can eventually show a “positive attitude.”

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Comments (10)
  1. Russ says:

    I think I will go for a stroll along a very dangerous boarder during war time with two countries that hate us. Here is your sign!!!!!!!

  2. Tony says:

    It’s Bush’s fault.

    1. The Crux of the Biscuit says:

      Only if they are CIA and he ordered the CIA to put them there. You think it is beyond this country to put people in harms way only to try and shape public opinion in such a way that if they are not released the US would consider it a war worthy provocation? Just got off the boat eh?

  3. DaveM says:

    Hey Sarah, no guts? You’re gonna stiff whoever put up your bail, and desert your two clueless friends to boot? You’re quite a celebrity in the strange circles you frequent.

  4. John says:

    Is this still a story?

  5. The Crux of the Biscuit says:

    Three American ‘students’ hiking along the Iraqi and Iranian borders ‘accidentaly’ stray into Iran. And it’s all some big misunderstanding. What would the reation in this country be if three Iranian ‘students’ went hiking along the Mexican border and ‘accidentaly’ strayed into the U.S.? I bet the public wouldn’t be calling for their release and return home. Fox News would make it sound like an F’ing Iranian invasion…..

  6. Morganstern says:

    Minnesota Nice, eh?
    When your children are abducted, no matter what their ages or where they might be taken, YES it is a story. By keeping them in the “public eye”, this case does not sink out of the minds of their fellow citizens, who may soon be over-eating in their heated abodes and laughing (or crying) over the actions of those well-paid sportsmen on their TV screens. American (non-combattant) citizens are being held against their will by another country. Once upon a time there were 400 of them–and people cared. Then there was one, and people cared. Now there are three–two still being held–and people do NOT care?

  7. Mark from Minnesota Tax Waste says:

    @Morganstern Why should we care for people who made a decision to go to a War torn country, knowing they might get picked up and charged, What kind of fool would even think of doing something like that. Do I care? Yes I care for our solders who are over there, but not one bit for a fool or fools

  8. John says:

    I’m tired of people going where they don’t belong and then expect the US government or some other agency to “save” them. I wonder how much $$ the US has already spent on trying to free them? Same goes for people that risk their lives boating in a storm, hiking in a blizzard, or who attempt some other reckless endovour, like vacationing in Mexico. I’m not sure people understand that US citizens are hated everywhere.

  9. Skeezer says:

    Hiking in Iraq and wandering into Iran…. Sounds pretty stoooopid. Have these people ever heard of our national park system ?

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