Two Americans who have been held in Iran for nearly two years on espionage charges were denied their day in court Wednesday when Iranian authorities delayed their trial without explanation, prolonging the agonizing uncertainty for families who have been lobbying for their release.
Masoud Shafiei, the Iranian attorney for 28-year-olds Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, told The Associated Press that the two were not brought into court Wednesday for the resumption of their trial, as had been planned. He said Iranian officials gave no immediate explanation.
Bauer's fiancee Sarah Shourd, who was arrested with the two men in July 2009 along the Iraq-Iran border and allowed to return to the U.S. last year on bail, said she and the men's families are worried about their health and what the delay might mean.
The three are graduates of the University of California at Berkeley, where they became friends. Shourd's mother lives in the Bay Area.
"Things like this trial date (are) a huge buildup and we're devastated," Shourd, 32, told the AP by phone from California.
"If it has that impact on us, it has to be a thousand times worse for Shane and Josh. One of the most painful things is just not being able to comfort Shane and Josh right now. None of us have any way to comfort them."
No one aside from their captors has seen Bauer or Fattal since their trial started Feb. 6. The trial was scheduled to resume Wednesday, and family members were eager for even the slightest glimpse at how the two might be faring.
Reached by phone at her home in Pine City, Minn., Bauer's mother, Cindy Hickey, used the word "devastation" to describe how she felt. "We were thirsting for a resolution."
Fattal's mother, Laura Fattal, told the AP she got the news in a late-night call from the State Department. She said the families are becoming increasingly concerned.
"We need independent eyes (on them) and those independent eyes I want are my eyes," Laura Fattal said. "I want to see them home."
Fattal's brother, Alex Fattal, said relatives were extraordinarily worried about the men's health. "We know they've been on hunger strike in the past to get the most basic of human rights. ... We worry if they're alive. We try to block that out but we have very serious concerns about their health and their emotional well-being through all this."
Shafiei said he, too, was worried about his clients' health and the court's failure to hold the proceedings Wednesday.
"My clients are in custody of judiciary officials but they were not brought into court," he told the AP. "The trial date had been fixed a long time ago. There is no justification for the postponement."
Shourd and Bauer, who got engaged after their arrest, had been living together in Damascus, Syria, where Bauer was a freelance journalist and Shourd was an English teacher. Fattal, an environmental activist, went to visit them shortly before their trip to Iraq. Bauer is a native of Onamia, Minn., Shourd is from Oakland, Calif., and Fattal grew up in suburban Philadelphia.
The three say they were hiking in Iraq's northern Kurdish region and any crossing into Iran was inadvertent. They deny the espionage allegations.
Initially, Tehran accused the three Americans only of illegally crossing into Iran but later added espionage charges. Authorities have given few details to support the accusations.
Tehran's chief prosecutor, Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi, has claimed, without elaborating, that the Americans had "equipment and documents and received training."
Shourd was ordered back to Tehran for the trial by Iranian officials but declined to return.
The spying charges could bring a maximum sentence of 10 years.
The U.S. government has denied the charges against them and demanded their release. Their lengthy detention has added to tensions between the two nations over issues like Iran's disputed nuclear program.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Philo Dibble, the Obama administration's top diplomat on Iranian issues, expressed concern Wednesday at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee subcommittee hearing on human rights in Iran.
"We urge the Iranian government to promptly release Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal so that they may return to their families. ... We note that this morning the trial that was scheduled to resume today did not resume. We're not quite sure what that means but we hope it is a positive omen."
State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters later Wednesday that the department had not yet heard from Swiss diplomats who represent U.S. interests in Iran about why the trial did not resume.
"We are hopeful that the Iranian government will recognize the fact that these individuals have been held now for nearly two years, they have not been charged formally, and that they should be released on humanitarian grounds, and that we're hopeful that that message has gotten through," Toner said.