TEHRAN, IRAN - Relatives of two American men arrested more than two years ago in Iran said Sunday that the news they had received eight-year prison sentences for spying hit them hard, but they remain hopeful the men will eventually be released.
Shane Bauer, who grew up in Minnesota, and Josh Fattal were sentenced Saturday to three years for illegal entry into Iran and five years for spying for the United States. The two were arrested in July 2009 near the Iraq-Iran border along with a third American, Sarah Shourd, who was released in September on $500,000 bail and returned to the United States. All three deny the charges, saying they were only hiking near the ill-defined border.
Samantha Topping, the spokeswoman for Bauer and Fattal's families, issued a statement Sunday, saying their relatives had received confirmation of their sentences.
"Of the 751 days of Shane and Josh's imprisonment, yesterday and today have been the most difficult for our families," it said. "Shane and Josh are innocent and have never posed any threat to the Islamic Republic of Iran, its government or its people."
But the statement also said the families still hoped the two would be released, based on remarks from Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi. He said earlier this month that he hoped "the trial of the two American defendants who were detained for the crime of illegally entering Iran will finally lead to their freedom."
Iranian rift in power
The families had been hoping that meant the men would be set free during the current Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when pardons are traditionally granted. Their statement appealed "to the authorities in Iran to show compassion and allow them to return home to our families without delay.
"We also ask everyone around the world who trusts in the benevolence of the Iranian people and their leaders to join us in praying that Shane and Josh will now be released," it said.
The gap between words by Salehi and the verdict suggests an increasing rift between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration and hardline judiciary, controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters.
The Americans' Iranian lawyer, Masoud Shafiei, said Sunday that his clients were innocent and he would appeal the verdict and sentences.
"I will use entire legal capacity to defend them," he said.
Under Iranian law, a conviction on espionage can carry up to a 10-year prison sentence, while a sentence for illegal entry can run from six months to three years in jail. The terms are often significantly reduced upon appeal.
Shafiei said Bauer and Fattal were notified about the court ruling in prison on Saturday.
Iranian state TV first reported the verdict Saturday. On Sunday, Tehran chief prosecutor Jafari Dowlatabadi confirmed the sentences and said the Americans have 20 days to appeal. He also said that Shourd's case "is still open and will be tried in absentia."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the United States is "deeply disappointed" by the sentences and the men have the nation's "unflagging support."
"We continue to call and work for their immediate release," she said.
Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, both Democrats, said they were disappointed with the sentencing.
Klobuchar called it "unwarranted" and continuing evidence of Iran's "callous" treatment of the hikers. Like Klobuchar, Franken said he'd continue to do "everything possible" to see the hikers released and reunited with their families. Bauer's mother, Cindy Hickey, is from Pine City, Minn.