Ahmadinejad Hints at Possible Prisoner Exchange for 3 U.S. Hikers; State Department: "We're Not Interested"
SAN FRANCISCO, Feb 3, 2010 (IPS) -- Six months after Iranian authorities arrested three U.S. citizens who mistakenly crossed the unmarked border between Iran and Iraq, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that Iran could be willing to exchange them for Iranians imprisoned in the United States.
In an interview with Iran's state television, Ahmadinejad said, "We are having talks to have an exchange if it is possible."
He did not specify any Iranian prisoners by name. But he added that the United States has "abducted" Iranian citizens from other countries and even "pressured other countries to arrest many of our citizens."
The U.S. State Department quickly dismissed the overture.
"We're not interested in a swap per se," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters Wednesday. "We are interested in resolving the cases of our citizens."
On Jul. 31, 2009, Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal were hiking near the Ahmed Awa waterfall in Iraqi Kurdistan when news reports say they mistakenly crossed the unmarked border into Iran. They have been detained since, and have had no contact with their families.
In November last year, five British citizens, whose yacht had drifted into Iranian waters, were detained but released after a week. Three young Belgians who were on vacation in Iran were also detained for three months, then released on bail into the care of the Belgian embassy and allowed to leave Iran in late December.
But the three U.S. citizens have been in detention for six months without access to their families or their Iranian lawyer, Masoud Shafie, who accepted the case on behalf of their families in December.
Ahmadinejad's remarks regarding a possible exchange did not come as a particular surprise.
On Jan. 7, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the head of Iran's Parliamentary Commission on National Security and Foreign Policy, implied that the continued detention of the hikers was retaliation for the arrests of five Iranian diplomats by U.S. forces in 2007 in a raid of Iran's consulate in Arbil, northern Iraq.
"The U.S. violated the Vienna Conventions and international regulations by arresting Iranian diplomats and keeping them in prison for a long time," Mehr news agency quoted Boroujerdi as saying.
"So the U.S. should not rush for the release of the three hikers," Boroujerdi said.
Massoud Shafie, the attorney for the three U.S. citizens, told IPS that his efforts to gain access to his clients have failed and nobody in authority appears willing to do anything for the case.
"My clients have been disconnected from the outside world for more than six months. They should be able to call their parents and lawyers," Shafie said in a telephone interview from Tehran.
"The judiciary should hold a trial immediately and if the investigation is not over yet, the authorities should release them on bail and let them stay at the Swiss embassy - the United States' interests section in Tehran," he told IPS.
Shafie said that the authorities have told him that the investigation is not over and hence he would not be able to see his clients. Over the past two months, judiciary officials announced, multiple times, that the hikers would be tried soon, but they have not set any date.
Last month, Tehran's prosecutor granted Shafie permission to visit his clients in prison. Yet, Shafie says he has not been able to exercise this permission due to the judiciary's bureaucracy and lack of political will.
"I have permission from the prosecutor but the employees at his office postpone this visit over and over again. They act rudely and have not allowed me to read the cases and understand the charges against them, which is necessary in order for me to be able to write my defence bill," said Shafie. "These individuals' families are seriously concerned about them and they have no idea what is happening to them in prison."
Ahamdinejad's offer indicates that the Iranian government is using the three U.S. citizens as bargaining chips in its hostile relations with the United States.
"Mr. Ahmadinejad's remarks are disappointing as they show the executive branch is interfering in the judiciary's business. If they are innocent, they should be released, and if their investigation shows otherwise, they should be tried in a fair and free trial," Shafie said.
Meanwhile, the families of the three detainees feel caught up in a political struggle they have little to do with.
"I'm in shock that we have not even received one single phone call. My brother and his friends are now into their seventh month of detention and the total amount of time they have had contact with the outside world is about an hour," Alex Fattal, the brother of Josh Fattal, told IPS.
"The psychological pressure is really inhumane. We have heard that this is in the hands of the judiciary and a trial is coming for many months now, but still nothing. They have not been allowed to see their lawyer. Who knows what psychological state they will be in if they are put on trial?" he said.
Human rights groups have repeatedly asked the Iranian government to provide more information on the case, to no avail.
"The three hikers are innocent victims who have been caught in Iran's turmoil," Hadi Ghaemi, coordinator of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, told IPS.
"There has been no concrete information about the exact charges against them and they have been deprived all contact with their family or lawyer. They are hostages in the hands of the Iranian government, which refuses to be transparent about these cases," he said.
Last Christmas, the families of the trio tried to reach out to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with a recorded video message requesting the release of their children on humanitarian grounds. The Iranian authorities failed to respond.
Six months after the arrests, relatives of the detainees say their frustration is overwhelming.
"I feel devastated and helpless about the detainment of my son Shane and his companions, Sarah and Josh," Cindy Hickey, the mother of Shane Bauer, told IPS. "We have heard over and over again that this will be handled quickly by the judiciary and follow the rule of law, but still we wait with no movement in the case."
"They have had no counselor access through the Swiss for more then three months and no access to their lawyer and we have no proof that our children are okay," added Hickey.
"I hope our case is not being confused with world issues and that it is being treated as a separate humanitarian matter and I hope that the Iranian authorities will take this wall down for us and allow our children to come home so we can continue our lives together," she said.