Two American men arrested more than two years ago while hiking along the Iraq-Iran border have been sentenced to eight years in prison on charges that include espionage, state TV reported Saturday, a sharp blow to hopes their release was imminent.
The announcement seemed to send a hard-line message from Iran's judiciary -- which answers directly to the ruling clerics -- weeks after the country's foreign minister suggested that the trial of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal could clear the way for their freedom.
It also was likely to raise speculation about Iran using the Americans as political bargaining chips and could bring added tensions to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to New York next month for the annual General Assembly at the United Nations.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland restated U.S. appeals for their release. "It is time to reunite them with their families," she said.
A spokeswoman for the men's relatives said only that the families were aware of the report and awaiting confirmation.
The Americans, whose final court hearing was three weeks ago, deny the charges and say they were only hiking in a scenic and largely peaceful area of northern Iraq near the border.
They were detained in July 2009 along with a third American, Sarah Shourd, who was released in September 2010 on $500,000 bail and returned to the United States. Shourd's case "is still open," the state-run TV website irinn.ir reported.
Bauer and Fattal, both 29, have been sentenced to three years each for illegal entry into Iran and five years each for spying for the United States, the website quoted "informed sources" at Iran's judiciary as saying. It was not immediately clear if that includes time served. They have 20 days to appeal the sentence.
Their Iranian attorney, Masoud Shafiei, said he had not been notified of the verdict, but he will definitely appeal the sentence if true.
The U.S. government has insisted that the men have done nothing wrong. The two countries have no diplomatic relations, so Washington has been relying on the Swiss Embassy in Tehran in the case.