Iran Opens Trial of U.S. Hikers

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After 18 months of detention, the closed-door trial of three American hikers accused of spying on Iran began on Sunday in the Tehran Revolutionary Court.

During the initial five-hour session, the two young men - Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal - and their female companion, Sarah Shroud, in absentia, pleaded not guilty to the charges of espionage, their attorney, Masoud Shafei, said.

Shroud, Bauer's fiancee, was released in September on $500,000 bail brokered through Oman. Shroud is not likely to return to stand trail, forfeiting the half million dollar bond.

The court, controlled by Iranian clerics, forbade the presence of observers in the trial, including Swiss Ambassador Livia Leu Agosti, who has been representing U.S. interests.

Iranian security forces arrested the three hikers in July 2009 when they inadvertently crossed the border from Iraq's Kurdistan region into Iran.

Bauer and Shroud had been living together in Damascus, where he was working as a freelance journalist and his fiancee was teaching English. After Fattal arrived for a visit in July 2009, the three embarked on a hiking trip to northern Iraq.

Shortly after her release, Shroud met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York to plead for his intervention in releasing Bauer and Fattal.

Ahmadinejad promised to ask the courts to expedite the trial and use "maximum leniency" in judging the case.

Hanging Two People a Day

According to media reports, Iranian authorities have been hanging an average of two persons a day, executing 66 people since the end of 2010, according to France 24 International News.

On January 29, authorities hung 46-year-old Dutch national Sahra Bahrami on alleged drug-smuggling charges.

The victim's sister said the charges were trumped up. Iranian authorities arrested Bahrami when she visited Iran during the anti-government protests over the 2009 elections.

"She doesn't even smoke cigarettes, let along possessing drugs," Bahrami's sister said. "How could someone who participates in election gatherings and endangers her life engage in such actions against her country?" she asked.

Bahrami's attorney said he was "bewildered as to how my client's death sentence was issued while her security charges had not yet been reviewed."

Following Bahrami's execution, the Dutch Foreign Ministry froze official contacts with Iran and issued a travel advisory, saying in a statement it was "shocked, shattered by this act by a barbaric regime," Agence France Presse reported.

"The minister was deeply shocked. This was an act committed by a barbaric regime. The fact that Iranian diplomats had told us just on Friday that not all legal avenues had run their course made this even more shocking," the Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister Uri Rosenthal said, according to a ministry spokesman.

Bahrami lived in London and visited family in Iran from time to time, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights.  

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