TEHRAN, Iran – Two Americans accused of spying appeared in a closed-door Iranian court session Sunday to begin trial after an 18-month detention that has brought impassioned family appeals, a stunning bail deal to free their companion and backdoor diplomatic outreach by Washington through an Arab ally in the Gulf.
All three – two in person and one in absentia – entered not-guilty pleas during the five-hour hearing, said their lawyer, Masoud Shafiei.
He added that he was barred by Iranian law from giving any further details of the proceedings. But he noted that the judge decided for at least one more session in Tehran Revolutionary Court, which deals with state security cases including some of the high-profile opposition figures arrested in the violent aftermath of Iran’s disputed election in 2009.
He described the jailed Americans – Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal – as appearing in good health and said they sat next to him during the trial session.
“I hoped the case would have ended today,” Shafiei told the Associated Press. “I now hope they fix the next session for the near future.”
The case highlights the power of Iran’s judiciary, which is controlled directly by the nation’s ruling clerics and has rejected apparent appeals by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to show some leniency.
But Ahmadinejad has also tried to draw attention to Iranians in U.S. jails, raising the possibility the detainees have been viewed as potential bargaining chips with Washington at a time of high-stakes showdowns over Iran’s nuclear program.
Court authorities imposed a blanket ban on observers, including Swiss Ambassador Livia Leu Agosti, who represents U.S. interests in Iran in the absence of direct diplomatic relations.
The third American, Bauer’s fiancee, Sarah Shourd, was released in September on $500,000 bail. She was ordered back to Tehran for the trial by Iranian officials, and the bail will likely be forfeited because of her absence.
The Americans were detained in July 2009 along the Iraqi border. They claim they were hiking and that if they crossed into Iran it was inadvertent.
Iran, however, pressed forward with spy charges that could bring a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison if convicted.