Middle East

Three US 'hikers' accused of Iran spying go on trial

Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal, Sarah Shourd in Tehran, May 2010
Image caption The US has repeatedly said there is no basis for the group to stand trial

Three Americans accused of spying and illegally entering Iran have gone on trial in Tehran, with the proceedings being heard behind closed doors.

Sarah Shourd, Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer were arrested in 2009 as they were hiking near the Iran-Iraq border.

Ms Shourd was released on bail in September and returned to the US. She was not in court.

The trial comes at a time of tensions between the US and Iran, partly because of a row over Iran's nuclear programme.

The two men pleaded not guilty at the start of the trial, said Iran's state media.

Prosecutors said they had evidence the three were connected to US intelligence agencies.

Press TV broadcast footage of Mr Bauer and Mr Fattal in the courtroom as they gave their names and backgrounds.

"I was in Iraqi Kurdistan as a tourist with my fiancee Sarah, Josh and our friend Sean," said Mr Bauer.

As the trial is being held behind closed doors, observers such as Swiss Ambassador Livia Leu Agosti, who represents US interests in Iran, were barred from attending.

Ms Agosti confirmed Ms Shourd was not present: "This was her personal decision and I have no information why she is not in the court," she is quoted as saying by the AFP news agency.

The men's lawyer said beforehand he had been unable to see them before the trial to prepare their defence.

"I should have met with Shane and Josh to prepare the defence, but I was not allowed," Masoud Shafii told AFP on Saturday.

"I have been told I might see them one or two hours before the trial."

Forfeiting bail

The trial had been due to take place last November, but was postponed because Ms Shourd had not been summoned to attend.

Ms Shourd was freed on health grounds last year and returned to the US, under a $500,000 (£314,386) bail.

Iran has said she will forfeit bail money if she does not return to stand trial.

The group was arrested in July 2009 while hiking in northern Iraq's Kurdistan region, near the Iranian border.

They are accused of crossing the border illegally, but say that if they did so, it was by accident.

The charge of espionage, which can carry a death sentence, was added later.

The US has repeatedly said there is no basis for the trial and has called on Iran to release Mr Bauer and Mr Fattal.

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