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(New York) - Iranian authorities should immediately release the three Americans held in detention for nine months without charge, in violation of Iranian law, Human Rights Watch said today.

The three US citizens - Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd, and Josh Fattal - were apparently hiking through a mountainous area of Iraq's Kurdish region near the Ahmed Awa waterfall, an area increasingly popular with Western tourists, when they crossed the border into Iranian territory and were detained, on July 31, 2009. Their families say they have been held in solitary confinement for significant periods, have been allowed no family visits, and have had very limited access to their Iranian lawyer or diplomats representing the US government. Their families also say that Bauer and Shourd are suffering from serious ailments that require immediate medical attention.

"The authorities have already held these three Americans without charge for five months longer than Iranian law permits," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Yet they haven't offered any reason why their detention should continue even another day."

Under Iran's criminal procedure code, the state must complete the investigative phase of a case within four months and then charge or release the suspect. Article 3 of the Law Establishing Public and Revolutionary Courts says that judiciary officials may only extend the investigative phase of a case if they provide a basis for such a request, and allow the detainees to appeal the decision.

Nevertheless, Bauer, Shourd, and Fattal remain in custody, currently in Tehran's Evin Prison. Their families have been requesting visas to visit their loved ones since the three were detained,  without success.

The families found out about Bauer and Shourd's deteriorating health from a Swiss delegation that visited the detainees on April 23, 2010. Switzerland formally represents the United States in Iran in the absence of US-Iranian diplomatic relations. The consular visit was only the third allowed by the Iranian government and the first since October 29. Under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, which Iran has ratified, consular officers or their authorized representatives "shall have the right to visit a national of the sending State who is in prison, custody or detention, to converse and correspond with him and to arrange for his legal representation."

The three were briefly allowed to speak with their families by phone on March 9, their families said. Masoud Shafii, the Iranian lawyer hired by the detainees' families, told Human Rights Watch that he has not been permitted to visit them despite numerous requests. Other than those brief phone calls, the three consular visits by Swiss diplomats, and some letters they received from their families during the past nine months, the three Americans have had no contact with the outside world. Bauer and Fattal are currently confined to the same cell after spending months in solitary confinement. Shourd remains in solitary confinement.

Shourd's family and lawyer said that her situation is particularly troubling because she suffers from a serious gynecological condition. Shafii, the lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that on the morning of April 28 he visited judiciary officials and informed them that Shourd is "sick and her life is in danger." Shafii requested that his client be treated or released immediately. A week before that, her mother, Nora Shourd, told the Associated Press that in addition to her daughter's declining physical state, she is deeply concerned that her daughter's history of depression was "being made worse by the fact that she's being held in solitary."

On April 9, Iran's intelligence minister, Heidar Moslehi, told Iran's state-funded English-language Press TV that it was "quite obvious to us that the three Americans arrested in Iran last year had links with Western and Israeli intelligence services." Moslehi indicated that the government would soon publicize its evidence against the three. His remarks, however, did not appear in Iran's Persian-language media, suggesting that they were only intended for an international audience.

On March 16, Human Rights Watch wrote to Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, the head of the Judiciary, and Abbas Jaafari Dolatabadi, the Tehran prosecutor, expressing concern regarding the continued detention of the three Americans, and requesting that judiciary and prison authorities allow them regular phone calls and visits from their families and consular officials. In the letter, Human Rights Watch also called on Iranian authorities either to charge  the detainees or release them, after conducting prompt and impartial investigations into the matter.

"There's no evidence that the Iranian authorities have provided the three detained Americans their fundamental legal protections,"  Stork said. "They've had nine months to charge them with something more serious than crossing the border illegally, but all they have done is violated their basic rights under Iranian and international law."

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