Iran said Monday that it had arrested two foreigners as they were interviewing the son of a woman whose death sentence by stoning on an adultery conviction ignited international outrage.
Judiciary spokesman Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehi said the two foreigners had entered the country on tourist visas and did not have documents to prove they were journalists. His comments were carried on the official IRNA news agency.
In Berlin, the German Journalists' Association said two German journalists were arrested Sunday while interviewing Sajjad Qaderzadeh, the son of 43-year-old Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani. The union did not name the journalists but urged Iran to immediately release them.
The whereabouts of Qaderzadeh and his mother's lawyer, Houtan Kian, were not immediately known and their cell phones have been switched off since the foreigners' arrest, possible indications that they too are in custody.
The arrests are likely to draw even more international condemnation of Iran, already under fire from the West over it nuclear program.
Also, the U.S. has repeatedly condemned Iran for holding two American men in prison for 14 months. Iran initially accused the two of crossing the border from Iraq illegally but later leveled more serious allegations of spying. An American woman arrested with the two was released last month on humanitarian grounds. She and the U.S. government insist the three were innocent hikers and if they crossed the border, it was inadvertent.
A German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said the government is aware of the latest arrest reports, but could not confirm them at this stage. She said the Foreign Ministry and the German Embassy in Tehran are making intense efforts to find out exactly what happened. The spokeswoman requested anonymity in line with government policy.
Ejehi did not identify the two foreigners or their nationalities. He said a person who was present during the interview alerted the authorities, but he did not say who it was.
The head of the German Journalists' Association, Michael Konken, sharply criticized Iranian authorities for pretending the two weren't journalists because they allegedly were not accredited as such.
"This is a pretext to avoid critical reporting about the violation of human rights in Iran," Konken said in a statement.
German media reported Monday the two journalists were employed by Axel Springer AG's weekly newspaper Bild am Sonntag, a mass-circulation tabloid. But a company spokesman, Tobias Froehlich, said the group currently has no information of any arrest of Bild employees in Iran.
Maryam Namazie, a London-based Iranian rights activist who has helped publicize Ashtiani's case, also told The Associated Press the journalists arrested are a reporter and a photographer working for Bild. Namazie said the pair were interviewing Ashtiani's son in her lawyer's office at about 7 p.m. local time on Sunday.
Namazie said that, for security reasons, they couldn't bring a translator along, so they called a German-based Iranian anti-stoning activist named Mina Ahadi, who translated for them over the phone.
Ahadi was about two questions into the interview when she heard over the phone line shouting and confusion in the room before the line went dead, Namazie said. Neither journalist returned to their hotel and they and Ashtiani's son Qaderzadeh have not answered their phones since, she added.
It appeared that Iranian authorities raided the lawyer's office in the northwestern city of Tabriz in the middle of the interview and detained all four people, she said, though the arrests of the son and the lawyer could not immediately be confirmed.
She said Qaderzadeh "feared that he was going to be arrested at any time."
"It's just how the regime works," she said.
Qaderzadeh's sister has visited Tabriz prison in northwestern Iran, where Ashtiani is being held, but officials said her brother was not being held there, Namazie said.
Iran has temporarily suspended the controversial stoning verdict against Ashtiani under international pressure, but says no definite decision has yet been made about her case.
Ashtiani, a mother of two, was first convicted in May 2006 of having an "illicit relationship" with two men following the death of her husband _ for which a court in Tabriz sentenced her to 99 lashes. Later that year she was also convicted of adultery, despite having retracted a confession, which she claims was made under duress. She was sentenced to death by stoning for the adultery conviction.
Stoning was widely imposed in the years following the 1979 Islamic revolution, and even though Iran's judiciary still regularly hands down such sentences, they are often converted to other punishments. The last known stoning was carried out in 2007, although the government rarely confirms that such punishments have been meted out.
Under Islamic rulings, a man is usually buried up to his waist, while a woman is buried up to her chest with her hands also buried. Those carrying out the verdict then throw stones until the condemned dies.
Leading Spanish daily El Pais said Monday its correspondent in Tehran, Angeles Espinosa _ one of the paper's top foreign reporters_ had her residency permit canceled Sunday and was given two weeks to leave the country. She has been posted there for the past five years.
El Pais says Espinosa was detained in July after interviewing Ahmad Montazeri, son of the late dissident cleric. Back then she had her press pass taken away but was led to believe she would get it back after the summer holidays. But on returning to Tehran, authorities took away her passport for three weeks. They returned the passport Sunday but with residency permit canceled and an order to leave Iran.
Associated Press writers Raphael G. Satter in London, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Ciaran Giles in Madrid, Spain contributed to this report.