Iran Charges UC Graduates with Spying

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday November 12, 2009 - 09:29:00 AM

The three American hikers, all graduates of UC Berkeley, who were detained by Iranian authorities, were charged with espionage Monday, according to reports by national and international media. 

UC Berkeley alumni Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal have been held by Iranian authorities since July 31 for illegally crossing into Iran from Iraqi Kurdistan. 

Family and friends have said that the three were on a hike when they crossed the Iran–Iraq border by mistake. 

The families of Bauer, Shourd and Fattal issued a statement Monday to the Planet in response to the latest reports from Tehran: 

“The allegation that our loved ones may have been engaged in espionage is untrue,” the statement said. “It is entirely at odds with the people Shane, Sarah and Josh are and with anything that Iran can have learned about them since they were detained on July 31. Shane, Sarah and Josh have now been held for more than 100 days simply because they apparently strayed into Iran by accident while hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan. We again call on Iran to show compassion to our loved ones and release them without delay. This has already gone on for too long.” 

Efforts by U.S. government officials—including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—to free the three have been unsuccessful. Clinton met with the families of all three hikers recently, according to UC Berkeley officials. 

According to CNN, Tehran’s prosecutor general, Abbas Ja’afari Dolatabadi, made an announcement about the charges during an interview with the official Iranian news agency IRNA. 

“The charge against the three U.S. citizens who were arrested on the Iran–Iraq border is espionage. Investigation of their cases is in progress,” he told IRNA, adding: “There will be more to say [about them] soon.” 

CNN reported that Clinton urged the Iranian government Monday to “exercise compassion,” saying, “We believe strongly that there is no evidence to support any charge whatsoever.” 

Dolatabadi also told IRNA during the interview that Iranian authorities had also arrested a Danish journalism student and were investigating him, CNN said. 

“A journalist must have an official permit from authorized officials,” he told IRNA. “Therefore, the investigation will continue. We have also requested information from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, and, after they respond to our inquiry, we will make our decision.” 

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance is in charge of issuing permits to journalists. 

UC Berkeley officials said they would not comment on the latest charges but expressed concern about the ongoing detention. The university’s Associate Vice Chancellor of Public Affairs Claire Holmes described the news as a “most unfortunate turn of events.” 

“Our hearts go out to the hikers and their families,” she told the Planet. “We certainly hope this gets resolved quickly, and they return home to be with their families and loved ones. They are in our thoughts and prayers. We certainly hope that the State Department will do all it takes to bring them back.” 

Holmes said UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau had sent Clinton a letter urging consular access, which was granted. 

“We don’t want to do anything to jeopardize their release, but the letter basically said that all three hikers graduated from UC Berkeley, and while we do not know the particulars of the situation, we urged for consular access.” 

Because the United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran, the U.S. government appealed for the hikers’ release through Swiss diplomats, who met with them twice at the Evin Prison in Tehran, most recently Oct. 29, according to CNN. 

Bauer, 27, and Shourd, 31, are freelance journalists, and Fattal, 27, is involved with a sustainable living project at the Aprovecho Research Center in Cottage Grove, Ore., the families have said. 

UC Berkeley held a vigil in August marking the 30-day anniversary of the detention.  

“We wanted to keep this topic in the forefront and get the attention of the media,” Holmes said. “It’s terrible.” 

Holmes said that it was very uncommon for college students to get detained and charged for espionage by international authorities while traveling. 

Worldwide vigils for the hikers were held on the 100-day anniversary of their arrest.  

The university is in touch with the hikers’ families through sporadic e-mails, Holmes said. 

A website created in support of the three hikers, www.freethehikers.org, was jammed because of a spike in web traffic Monday morning.