German paper rejects spy claim about its reporters

A German newspaper on Sunday dismissed as "absurd" Iranian suggestions that two of its reporters detained in connection with a highly publicized stoning case were spying, and called for their immediate release.

The two were arrested in Iran last month while interviewing the son and lawyer of 43-year-old Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who was sentenced to be stoned to death for adultery.

Iranian officials have questioned whether the Germans are journalists and accused them of being spies, saying they posed as reporters without providing any evidence to support the claim.

Bild am Sonntag editor-in-chief Walter Mayer wrote in Sunday's edition of the weekly paper that "that is absurd."

"The Iranian authorities know perfectly well that they are journalists and nothing else," he added, calling for the immediate release of both the reporter and photographer.

Mayer complained that the two still don't have a lawyer, and called for German Embassy officials to be allowed to visit them "as often as possible." Officials obtained their second visit to the pair last week.

He also urged Iran to spare the journalists "debasing treatment."

Bild am Sonntag long stayed silent on the case, hoping that "quiet diplomacy" would get the two freed quickly, but changed tack last week after they were shown on Iranian state television.

Neither the newspaper nor the governments of the two countries have named the journalists.

The Iranian government has said the pair admitted entering Iran on tourist visas instead of on the journalist visas foreign reporters must have to work legally in the country.

Mayer did not respond to that assertion but said that such a visa violation would be dealt with elsewhere with a warning, expulsion and fine rather than accusations of spying.

The stoning sentence against Ashtiani has been put on hold and is now being reviewed by Iran's supreme court, but she still faces the possibility of being sentenced to death by other means.

The outcry over the case is one of the latest thorns in Iran's relationship with the international community, as the U.S., the European Union and international human rights groups have urged Iran to stay the execution.