(New York) - Iranian authorities should immediately release two American hikers who are being tried on apparently politically motivated charges of espionage and illegal entry, Human Rights Watch said today. The trial of Josh Fattal, 27, and Shane Bauer, 27, is set to resume on May 11, 2011, at Branch 15 of Tehran's Revolutionary Court, following a closed session on February 6.
The two US citizens, along with an American woman, Sarah Shroud, 31, whom the Iranian government has since released, were taken into custody on July 31, 2009. They were hiking through Iraq's Kurdish region near the Ahmed Awa waterfall, a mountainous area increasingly popular with Western tourists, when they apparently crossed the border into Iranian territory. Iranian security agents detained them on allegations of spying. The defendants have not been able to regularly meet with their lawyer, in violation of their internationally guaranteed right to a fair trial.
"The endless prosecution of the two hikers appears to be little more than a political jab at the United States," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "This case highlights the cruel and arbitrary nature of the Iranian justice system. The two should be released immediately."
Authorities released Shroud in September 2010 on US$500,000 bail on the basis of ill health, and have since summoned her back to Iran to stand trial along with Fattal and Bauer. Her family has indicated that she will not return for the May 11 court session because she is suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from her imprisonment. The hikers' lawyer, Massoud Shafii, recently expressed concern that Shroud's summons, revised to make her presence mandatory, may provide authorities with an excuse to delay the trial further, as the authorities have done twice.
Iranian criminal law mandates judges to review separately the case of each defendant where there are multiple suspects, and precludes them from holding suspects for indefinite periods of time in cases where co-defendants are unavailable to stand trial.
Authorities have deprived Bauer and Fattal, whom they are holding in Tehran's Evin Prison, of opportunities to meet with their lawyer and severely restricted access to their families. Their families say the authorities have also held the men in solitary confinement for significant periods and limited their access to Swiss diplomats representing the US government, in the absence of US-Iranian diplomatic relations, to a few occasions.
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 two men, and requesting that judiciary and prison authorities allow them regular phone calls and visits from their families, consular officials, and their lawyer.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party, requires Iran to ensure that everyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge "shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release," provides that authorities should conduct a "fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal," and allows defendants "adequate times and facilities for the preparation of their defense" and to communicate with the lawyer of their choosing.