The Obama administration on Friday renewed calls for Iran to immediately release three American hikers detained for nearly nine months and also appealed to the Iranian government to issue their families visas to visit them.
A day after the families said two of the three are in poor health, the White House and State Department said there was no reason for their continued incarceration. Their comments came after reports from Swiss diplomats who were allowed to visit the trio in Tehran's notorious Evin prison on Thursday.
"We are disturbed by the families' reports of their children's physical and emotional health," said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. "These three Americans - innocent tourists in Iraq's Kurdistan region when they were detained on July 31, 2009 - have been unjustly held for almost nine months without formal charges or access to legal representation."
"We ask the Islamic Republic of Iran to release these three Americans and allow them to go home and be reunited with their families," she said.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs expressed deep concern for the hikers and called for their release.
"We fear their well-being will suffer even more unless their case is resolved without delay," he said in a statement. "We strongly believe these urgent developments are additional reasons for the government of Iran to release them immediately."
Earlier, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley asked Iranian authorities to grant visas to the families of Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal so they can visit them.
Thursday's visit by the Swiss, who represent U.S. interests in Iran, was the first since last October and only the third since the three University of California at Berkeley graduates were detained after apparently straying into Iran while hiking in a scenic part of Iraq. This month, Iran's intelligence minister accused them of having links to U.S. intelligence services, which their families said was absurd.
Late Thursday, the mothers of Shourd and Bauer, told The Associated Press that they were in poor health. The mothers said both had also indicated to the Swiss diplomats that they were considering a hunger strike.
Shourd, who is being held alone in a cell, is suffering a serious gynecological condition and battling depression, while Bauer has a stomach ailment, their mothers told The Associated Press.
"I'm really alarmed," said Nora Shourd, who lives in Oakland, Calif. "I'm alarmed for Sarah's health. I think she needs immediate care."
Iranian officials have suggested that the three will be prosecuted, but no trial has been set. Although their families hired an Iranian attorney, he has not been allowed to see them.
Bauer and Fattal, who are both 27, and Shourd, 31, had been allowed no sympathetic visitors in months, though they were permitted to call their mothers in early March. The calls lasted about a minute.
Their mothers were heartened that the Swiss diplomats were allowed a 40-minute visit. The detained hikers have been allowed to receive letters from family and friends, and were given access to books from the prison's library, the diplomats told their families.
The three were told of efforts by their families to secure their release and that their mothers applied for visas to try to visit them in prison.
"The kids were very, very excited to hear that," said Fattal's mother, Laura Fattal, who lives near Philadelphia.
But the three have been told almost nothing by their captors about why they are being held or what charges they could face, their mothers said.
"They are very worried about the fact that they've been in there so long," said Bauer's mother, Cindy Hickey, who lives near Pine City, Minn. "They have no influence, no control over what is happening with their case."
News that the three were considering a hunger strike to protest their incarceration was especially troubling.
"Their health is not the best to begin with," said Nora Shourd. "The fact that they're considering it is disturbing to us."
The Swiss diplomats reported that Bauer and Fattal were being held in the same cell. Shourd was alone in another cell, but allowed to see Bauer and Fattal once a day for a few minutes.
Bauer, a freelance journalist, had been hired to cover the Kurdish elections, but his family said the hiking trip was a vacation. He and Sarah Shourd were dating and had been living in Damascus, Syria. She taught English and had written for various online publications. Fattal went to visit them after traveling overseas on a teaching fellowship.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)