Germans imprisoned in Iran get first family visit

TEHRAN, Iran— Iran allowed two imprisoned German
journalists to meet family members for about 12 hours overnight, the first
visit in the nearly three months since they were arrested while covering the
case of an Iranian woman sentenced to death by stoning.

The meeting began late Monday night in a hotel in the
city of Tabriz, 370 miles (600 kilometers) northwest of the capital Tehran,
where the Germans are being held in a prison, Iranian Foreign Ministry
spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said. German officials said it lasted all night
and the two were allowed to spend some of the time in private with their
relatives in a hotel room.

Though Iranian and German authorities have not identified
the two prisoners, Iran’s state-run Press TV showed a passport belonging to
Marcus Alfred Rudolf Hellwig and identified the second as Jens Andreas Koch.
They were working as reporter and photographer for Germany’s mass-circulation
tabloid Bild am Sonntag.

German officials said the photographer’s mother and the
reporter’s sister met them and then left Tabriz heading back to Tehran. Press
TV broadcast on Tuesday brief footage of the meeting that showed the two men
seated at a dining room table at the hotel restaurant. They sat with the two
women wearing headscarves and several other men.

The visit ended Tuesday morning after the families and
prisoners shared breakfast with the German ambassador to Iran and German
Embassy staff.

In the days leading up to the visit, Germany brought
intense pressure on Iran to let it go through and continued to demand the
immediate release of the two men. The German Foreign Ministry summoned Iran’s
ambassador on Monday to complain that they were not allowed to meet with
relatives over Christmas.

The men were arrested in October while interviewing the
son and lawyer of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the woman sentenced to death by
stoning for adultery. The son and lawyer were also arrested at the same time.
The interview took place in Tabriz, where Ashtiani lived before her arrest.

Ashtiani’s sentence of death by stoning, which Iran has
put on hold, has brought harsh condemnation from the U.S., the European Union
and rights groups who are demanding Tehran stay the execution. It has further
strained Iran’s relations with world powers, already tense over the country’s
disputed nuclear program.

Iran has also been holding two American prisoners for
more than a year, and says it is going to put them on trial for spying. Iran
had originally accused them of illegally crossing the border from northern
Iraq. The American government and the prisoners’ families say they were
innocent hikers and if they crossed the border, it was inadvertent.

The Germans have been held since early October. Iranian
officials accuse them of violating laws forbidding those who enter the country
on tourist visas to work as journalists. Iran’s judiciary rejected earlier
claims by local officials who accused the two of espionage, and no spy charges
have been filed against them.

Bild quoted German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle as
thanking his Iranian counterpart Ali Akbar Salehi “for his support”
in arranging the meeting.

Much back-and-forth diplomacy apparently went into the
meeting.

Bild has reported that the meeting was first planned for
Saturday and then rescheduled for Sunday, but both were canceled.

Early in December, Iran signaled the two journalists
could be released in a goodwill gesture on the occasion of the New Year
holiday. But on Tuesday, Mehmanparast said their case was still under
investigation.

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