Free the hikers

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Sunday, July 18, 2010

THE MORE INFORMATION becomes available about Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri, the more the Obama administration's version of events seems borne out: He freely chose to leave Iran for the United States, and he freely chose to return. That he was allowed to do so is in keeping with U.S. law and common decency. But it also ought to provide an example for the government of Iran, whose respect for its own laws, not to mention decency, is sporadic at best.

For nearly a year, Iran has been holding three young Americans who, unlike Mr. Amiri, have no involvement in espionage but would like to freely return to their homes. Those prisoners -- Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal -- have been in custody since July 31, 2009, when they were arrested while hiking near the border between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan. The three may have crossed the border unintentionally; they have not had a chance to tell their stories. What's certain is that Iran has been holding them ever since in the notorious Evin prison outside Tehran -- neither releasing them nor charging them with a crime, in violation of Iranian law.

Senior Iranian officials, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi, have hinted that the three hikers could be swapped for Iranians in the United States -- including Mr. Amiri. The Obama administration rightly rejected the possibility. But after Mr. Amiri returned to Iran, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley made the proper connection: "We have shown with an Iranian citizen who chose to come here and has chosen to go home that he's free to do so. We should expect the same consideration when it comes to our citizens."

Iran allowed the three Americans to meet with their mothers in May, a gesture it fully exploited for propaganda purposes. But since then the prisoners have been denied access to their Iranian lawyer, "in violation of all due process," as a letter the mothers released on Thursday put it. As Mr. Crowley said, "they're not guilty of any crime other than crossing an unmarked border." U.S.-Iranian relations have been deteriorating in recent months, but this is a humanitarian matter. It's time for the regime to stop treating innocent Americans as hostages or pawns and allow them to leave the country.


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