TEHRAN, Iran — Iran accused three detained Americans of spying Monday, signaling it intends to put them on trial. It drew a sharp U.S. response that the charges are baseless because the hikers strayed across the border from Iraq.
The announcement comes as Washington and Tehran are deadlocked in negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, raising concern that the three could be used as bargaining chips in the talks or to seek the return of Iranians officials say are missing.
Relatives and the U.S. government say the three were innocent tourists on an adventure hike in northern Iraq and accidentally crossed into Iran where they were arrested on July 31.
Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 31, and Josh Fattal, 27, have been held in Iran's Evin prison, where Swiss diplomats have visited them twice and said they are healthy.
The three graduates of the University of California at Berkeley had been trekking in Iraq's northern Kurdistan region, their relatives say.
The case recalled that of an American-Iranian journalist, Roxanna Saberi, who was arrested in Iran in January and convicted of espionage. After heavy pressure from the United States, she was freed on appeal in May and returned home — and several months later, the U.S. military released five Iranians it had held for more than two years.
The accusations against the three Americans could be a first step in a similar move by Iran to put them on trial and convict them, then arrange their release, aiming to get concessions.
Monday's announcement by Tehran's top prosecutor was the first official word from Iran of espionage allegations. Until now, Iranian officials have spoken about the Americans only in broad terms, saying even after months of questioning that they were still trying to determine why they had entered Iran.
The hikers' families declined interview requests by the Associated Press, but issued a statement saying "the allegations that our loved ones may have been engaged in espionage is untrue. 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."
It added that the three have 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."
The White House also called for their release, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in Berlin: "We believe strongly that there is no evidence to support any charge whatsoever."
Tehran chief prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi said the three "have been accused of espionage" and that investigations were continuing, according to the state news agency IRNA. "An opinion (on their case) will be given in the not-distant future," he said.
It was not clear from his comments whether formal charges had been filed, since the word in Farsi he used could mean either "accused" or "charged." But it was a signal that Iranian authorities intend to prosecute them — and on far stiffer charges than simply accidentally crossing the border.
In Iran's opaque judicial system, the process of indictment and trial often take place behind closed doors.