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US 'spies' go on trial in Iran


Three young Americans accused of spying against Iran go on trial on Sunday, after their lawyer complained he had been denied access to the two who remain in custody.

The delayed trial of Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal comes at a time when anti-American rhetoric is at fever pitch in Iran as it marks the anniversary of its 1979 Islamic revolution.

Iran has dismissed repeated pleas by arch-foe the United States for their release but allowed the woman Shourd to return home on bail of around 500,000 dollars last September after more than a year in detention.

She is expected to be tried in absentia.

Shourd, her fiance Bauer and fellow hiker Fattal say they innocently strayed into Iran from across the unmarked border with northern Iraq when they were detained on July 31, 2009 by Iranian authorities.

Iran has accused them of "spying and illegally entering the country."

Their Iranian lawyer Masoud Shafii denied the charges against them and said he would press for their "innocence" and immediate release.

He said he had been denied access to Bauer and Fattal who are in custody.

"I should have met with Shane and Josh to prepare the defence, but I was not allowed," Shafii told AFP on Saturday. "I have been told I might see them one or two hours before the trial."

"I have studied the case in full detail. The question of spying is irrelevant.

There is just the question of illegal entry, which even if it has happened has been inadvertent as the border was unmarked," Shafii said.

"They are not at all at fault," he said, adding that illegal entry is punishable by a maximum three-year jail term which can also been commuted to a fine under the Iranian penal code.

He also said Shourd was unlikely to appear in court.

"All the signs indicate that she will not be there. She has prepared a statement which has been delivered to me through the Swiss embassy," he said.

The Swiss embassy represents US interests in Iran as Washington and Tehran  have had no direct diplomatic ties for the past three decades.

The trial, initially set for November 6 but later postponed to February 6, coincides with heightening animosity between Washington and Tehran over Iran's nuclear drive, a dispute punctuated by UN sanctions and strident remarks from hardline President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Washington has repeatedly called for the release of its three nationals.

Soon after the release of Shourd, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that holding the other two and prosecuting them was baseless.

"We do not believe that there is any basis whatsoever for them to be put on trial and we regret that they and their families are being subjected to a criminal system that we do not think in any way reflects their actions," she said.

"So it's our continuing request to the Iranian government that, just as they released the young woman, that they release these two young men."

The trial is to be presided by Judge Abolqasem Salavati who has overseen a string of prosecutions involving people charged with anti-Iran activities, particularly those connected with huge street protests after the disputed June 2009 presidential election.

He also presided over the trial of French academic Clotilde Reiss, who was arrested during the election unrest and later freed after paying a fine of around 285,000 dollars.

In a separate case, Iran is holding two German journalists accused of spying after they were arrested while interviewing the son of a woman condemned to death by stoning for adultery under the country's Islamic laws.

In November 2005, Iran arrested French skipper Stephane Lherbier and his German client Donald Klein for straying into Iran's territorial waters during a fishing expedition from the United Arab Emirates across the Gulf.

They said they had been misled by Emirati maps showing the waters as Emirati, but were sentenced to 18 months in jail two months later. The pair were released after serving most of their sentence.

Mystery also shrouds the fate of former FBI agent Robert Levinson who disappeared on the Iranian Gulf island of Kish in March 2007. Iran has denied having any information about the missing American's whereabouts.