Media watchdog says 2 Germans in Iran not spies

An international media watchdog on Tuesday strongly rejected spying accusations against two German reporters detained in Iran in connection with a highly publicized stoning case and called for their immediate release.

Reporters Without Borders criticized Iran for showing the two men in a broadcast on state television Monday in which they appeared to admit mistakes, calling it "a particularly perfidious form of propaganda."

The watchdog's secretary-general, Jean-Francois Julliard, said in a statement the journalists were not spies, but only people who made use of the human right to media freedom.

The German Journalists' Association also called for the reporters' immediate release. "Coverage of human rights violations is not spying, but important information," the association's deputy chairman, Ulrike Kaiser, said in a statement.

The two were arrested 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.

The German Bild am Sonntag newspaper said Tuesday for the first time that the two men were journalists on assignment for the paper in Iran.

"For more than a month, we have been fearing for two Bild am Sonntag reporters who were arrested in Iran," editor-in-chief Walter Mayer said in a statement. He declined further comment and did not identify the reporters.

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.

The prosecutor in Iran's East Azerbaijan province, where Ashtiani was arrested, told the Iranian government's main English-language broadcast arm, Press TV, that the Germans' behavior showed they entered the country as spies.

Prosecutor Hojjatoleslam Malek Ajdar Sharifi was quoted Monday as saying the Germans "are certainly spies and their case will be addressed" in court.

A German embassy diplomat was allowed Tuesday to pay a consular visit to the two, the second since they were imprisoned in the western city of Tabriz more than a month ago, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

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 EU and international human rights groups have urged Iran to stay the execution.