US hikers Shane Bauer, left, and Josh Fattal, attend their trail at the Tehran Revolutionary Court, Iran, Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011. Two Americans accused of spying appeared in a closed-door Iranian court session Sunday to begin trial after an 18-month detention that has brought impassioned family appeals, a stunning bail deal to free their companion and backdoor diplomatic outreach by Washington through an Arab ally in the Gulf.
The families of the two hikers held in Iran are understandably upset that their trial on espionage charges has been delayed without explanation.
Still, there’s reason to be hopeful that the long Iranian imprisonment of Minnesota native Shane Bauer and his hiker friend Josh Fattal is coming to an end.
Bauer and Fattal were supposed to appear in court Wednesday. They did not, but the renewed attention to their case in Iran may signal that the regime is ready to release them to generate positive global publicity -- something it has a history of doing with detained Westerners.
The two men were taken into custody nearly two years ago as they hiked with Bauer's fianceé, Sarah Shourd, in northeast Iraq on vacation. Iran claims that the three are spies who ventured across its border.
It has offered little evidence to back that up -- other than the regime's usual paranoid, hyperbolic rhetoric.
Bauer, whose parents still live in Minnesota, was a freelance journalist living in Syria. Another young journalist, Roxana Saberi of North Dakota, was also jailed in 2009 but was released after four months.
They are no longer being detained but are held hostage -- something that reflects poorly on a nation that needs to burnish its international image. It's time for Iran to send the hikers home.
The renewed attention to the two men’s trial may well signal that Iran moving closer to releasing them as a “humanitarian gesture.”
Veteran Iran watcher William Beeman, a University of Minnesota professor who has traveled extensively inside Iran, said there's a good chance that the trial is part of the political theater Iran will engage in before it lets Bauer and Fattal go.
Saberi's release followed a similar pattern, though the two men have been held longer.
But Beeman notes that the trial's timing is auspicious. The potential headlines generated by a release could divert attention from Iran's internal political dissension.
The May 5 Economist magazine reports that there is overt tension between Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Back in Minnesota, Bauer's family is on edge. Shane's father, Al Bauer, said Tuesday that the two men's lawyer had not yet had a pretrial meeting with them.
The family is asking Minnesotans for their prayers as the trial begins.
To learn more about Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, visit freethehikers.org.
Jill Burcum is a Star Tribune editorial writer.
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