Three young Americans -- two in person and one in absentia -- pleaded not guilty to spying charges as their trial began behind closed doors in a Tehran court on February 6.
Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal, and Sarah Shourd were arrested in July 2009 while hiking near the Iran-Iraq border.
Prosecutors said they had found "compelling evidence" the trio were connected to U.S. intelligence services. The three say that they were merely on a hike and that if they crossed the border they did so unknowingly.Footage of the trial
aired on Iran's state-run English-language Press TV showed Bauer telling the court that the three, and another companion, were "tourists."
"I was in Iraqi Kurdistan as a tourist with my fiancee Sarah, Josh, and our friend Sean [Meckfessel]," Bauer said.
Next Session 'Soon'
The trial will continue but no date has been set for the next session. The hikers' lawyer, Masoud Shafiei, said he hoped the next session would be held "soon."
The two men's families released a joint statement that said they were glad Bauer and Fattal had been given the chance to proclaim their innocence in court, and hoped the case would conclude soon.
"Now that the court has heard their testimony firsthand, we hope and pray that truth and justice will at long last prevail," the statement said.
Shourd was released on $500,000 bail in September and has since returned to the United States. She was not present at the court session. Shafiei submitted a statement on Shourd's behalf.
Livia Leu Agosti, the Swiss ambassador to Tehran who represents U.S. interests in Iran, was not allowed to attend the session. Other observers and media representatives also were barred.
Shafiei told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that he was not able to talk to his clients before the February 6 session, but he will be able to meet with them sometime soon.
"Unfortunately, they were brought late to the court session some 15 minutes late. Therefore they were taken directly to court, and I met them inside the court," he said. "But since I've requested a meeting with them, it has been decided that I will be given time to meet with Shane and Josh in prison in the coming days."
The lawyer said earlier he had been denied access to his clients and had not seen them since Shourd's release five months ago. The two Americans, both 28, are being held in Tehran's Evin prison.Could Get The Death Penalty
The trio were initially charged with crossing the border illegally, and the spying charge was added later. Under Iranian laws, espionage can be punishable by death.
In an interview with Iran's Press TV on February 6, Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari-Dolatabadi said crimes related to spying charges were dealt with seriously in all countries.
"How they were arrested, what document they had, what they wanted to do, and what secret motives they had all these made Tehran's Prosecutor-General's Office investigate more," Dolatabadi said.
Officials in the United States have said the charges are baseless, and have called for the pair's release.
Last year, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad called on the United States to release eight Iranian citizens, who he claimed were being held illegally, in response to Shourd's release.
The trio's mothers visited Tehran last May, during which Iranian authorities orchestrated a meeting between the mothers and relatives of five Iranians being held by the U.S. military in Iraq for over two years.
Shourd, a 32-year-old teacher and women's rights activist, grew up in Los Angeles and later moved to Damascus.Fluent In Arabic
Bauer is a fluent Arabic-speaking journalist and photographer, who had reported from Iraq, Yemen, Ethiopia, and Sudan. During the session, he told the court he had spent time in Baghdad:
"I've been in Baghdad once in the past as a journalist," he said. "I was investigating U.S. support for an Iraqi death squad and corruption between the U.S. Army and a group of Sunni sheikhs that were leading a militia called the Awakening Councils."
Shourd and Bauer met in Damascus while helping to organize demonstrations against the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
Fattal is an environmentalist and teacher. He was visiting Shourd and Bauer in Damascus in 2009 when they decided to go on a hiking trip to the Iran-Iraq border region.
Shourd and Bauer got engaged in prison. Shourd was summoned to stand trial in Tehran -- initially scheduled for November -- but she did not return to Iran. written by Farangis Najibullah with contributions from Radio Farda and agency reports