By Mitra Amiri
TEHRAN (Reuters) - The lawyer for two Americans convicted of spying in Iran said Sunday he would appeal their eight-year sentence, which shocked their families who had hoped to see them freed after more than two years already spent in Tehran's most notorious jail.
Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal were arrested on the border with Iraq in 2009 where they said they were hiking. They were found guilty of illegal entry and espionage, a verdict likely to further strain Iran's already poor relations with Washington.
"We have 20 days to appeal and I will try my best to use all legal means to annul the sentence," lawyer Masoud Shafiee told Reuters.
"It was my belief, and still is, that they are innocent and I have not seen any evidence that shows they are guilty."
Bauer, 28, and Fattal, 29, share a cell in Tehran's Evin prison. They had pleaded not guilty to the charges at their closed-door trial which ended on July 31.
"Josh and Shane were informed about the verdict yesterday," Shafiee said, adding that he had not seen them in person. The two years they had already served would count toward their 8-year sentences, he said.
They were arrested on July 31, 2009 near Iran's border with Iraq, along with Bauer's girlfriend, Sarah Shourd, 32, who was released on $500,000 bail in September and returned home to California where she has been campaigning for their freedom.
Confirming a leaked report of the sentence, Tehran Prosecutor-General Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi told a news conference that no verdict had yet been passed on Shourd who did not return to Iran to stand trial.
The "hikers" affair has heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington, which cut diplomatic ties after the storming of the U.S. embassy in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Several prominent public figures including boxer Muhammad Ali and singer Yusuf Islam, both Western converts to the Muslim faith, have called for their release.
The verdict was announced as Russia launches a fresh attempt to find a diplomatic solution to a standoff over Tehran's nuclear program, which Washington says is aimed at making atomic bombs, something Iran denies.
A Facebook page called "Free the Hikers" brimmed with comments expressing shock and disgust at the ruling, and offering prayers for the jailed men.
According to the Facebook page, Fattal was visiting Bauer and Shourd in the Syrian capital Damascus where Bauer was working as a freelance journalist when they decided to hike in the mountains of neighboring Iraq.
If they crossed the unmarked border into Iran, it was by mistake, they have said.
Their trial took place behind closed doors and the evidence against them has not been made public.
In a filmed interview posted on the website freethehikers.org, Shourd said that after two initial months of interrogations her questioner told her their case was on hold as it was "political" and that she was caught in a "tug of war between two countries."
Media speculated that Bauer and Fattal could be freed as a goodwill gesture during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan which began on August 1 and will end toward the end of this week on a day that has yet to be announced by religious authorities.
Previously, Iranian officials had suggested the Americans might be swapped for Iranians jailed in the United States, an option rejected by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The semi-official Fars news agency reported that the family of an Iranian woman whose detention in the United States has been highlighted by some media as an example of unfair U.S. treatment of Iranians will fly to visit her Wednesday.
Shahrazad Mir Gholikhan, was sentenced in March 2009 to more than five years in prison for brokering a deal to send night-vision goggles to Iran in violation of a U.S. embargo.
(Writing by Robin Pomeroy)