NEW YORK (Reuters) - Iran should release three Americans who crossed into Iranian territory in July and whom Tehran has charged with spying, Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi said on Wednesday.
Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 31, and Josh Fattal, 27, were held after crossing into Iran from northern Iraq. Their families said they were hiking and had strayed over the border accidentally. Iran’s official news agency quoted a prosecutor as saying on Monday they had been charged with espionage.
“I am very sorry that the government has arrested these people, because I know that in that region the border is not clear,” Ebadi said in an interview with Reuters.
“Even if the border was marked and one had passed the border, they could have been released by paying a fine, and I am surprised that they have been kept in prison for this long,” she said through an interpreter.
The case has come at a time of higher tensions between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear plans and after Iranian officials accused foreign nations of fueling widespread unrest after a disputed presidential election in June.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this week there was no evidence to back the charges against the three and called on Iran to exercise “compassion.”
Ebadi, 62, who won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, left Iran just before the June 12 election, which triggered huge protests by demonstrators who said the vote had been rigged to ensure the re-election of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Ebadi, whose husband, home and office are in Iran, said she would return there “pretty soon” but declined to give an exact date. She said she had stayed in the West in order to talk there about what was happening in Iran.
Asked if she had concerns for her safety when she went back to Iran, where thousands were detained after the election and more than 100 have been charged with fomenting unrest, Ebadi said she always had been concerned. But she agreed that because of the election aftermath those concerns had increased.
Although the government has clamped down hard on the protests, Ebadi said its popular base was “losing its strength every day ... The violence of the government proves that.”
She expressed confidence in opposition leaders Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi even though they were part of the Iranian establishment. “The best proof for it is that a million people came out supporting these people and behind them,” she said.
“One reason that the people are very angry is that these two people are both from the insiders of the government, but this government cannot even tolerate us voting for people who are affiliated to them.”
Ebadi also said she believed Iran should defuse its nuclear dispute with the West by accepting a Western offer that calls for Tehran to send some 75 percent of its low-enriched uranium abroad to be turned into fuel for an Iranian research reactor.
Diplomats say Iran has backed away from the basics of the deal and prefers to buy reactor fuel from foreign suppliers. The West fears that Iran wants to amass fuel for a nuclear weapon but Tehran says its atomic program is peaceful.
Noting that the U.N. Security Council had imposed sanctions on Tehran to try to stop it enriching uranium itself, Ebadi said the Iranian government had to accept council resolutions to avoid more sanctions “and I hope that they will be able to agree with the negotiators.”
(Editing by Eric Walsh)