TEHRAN (Reuters) - Three U.S. citizens detained in Iran and charged with espionage will stand trial, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said on Monday, in a case that could further strain relations between Tehran and Washington.
The three were held after they strayed into Iran from northern Iraq at the end of July. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said Washington strongly believed there was no evidence to support any charges against them.
“They have entered Iran with suspicious aims. The judiciary will try them,” Mottaki told a news conference, adding that “relevant sentences” would be issued. He did not elaborate.
Last month, Iran’s judiciary announced espionage charges against the trio — Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 31, and Josh Fattal, 27. Their families said they were hiking and had strayed across the border accidentally.
The United States cut diplomatic ties with Tehran after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution. The two countries are now embroiled in a row over Iran’s nuclear program, which the West suspects is aimed at making bombs. Tehran denies this.
Under Iran’s Islamic law, sharia, espionage can be punishable by death.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suggested in an interview with the American television network NBC in September that the Americans’ release might be linked to the release of Iranian diplomats he said were being held by U.S. troops in Iraq.
Some Iranian officials have linked the entry of the Americans to unrest that erupted after the June presidential election.
Ahmadinejad’s re-election sparked Iran’s worst unrest since the revolution. Authorities deny vote-rigging and portrayed opposition protests as a foreign-backed bid to undermine the Islamic state.
Reporting by Hashem Kalantari; writing by Fredrik Dahl