Europe

Ashtiani stoning case: Germans freed by Iran back home

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle (C), Jens Koch (L) and Marcus Hellwig walk off an official German government plane on 20 February 2011
Image caption The reporters' sentences were commuted from 20 months in prison to a fine

Two journalists who were detained by Iran last year have arrived back in Germany after being freed.

Marcus Hellwig and Jens Koch, from Germany's Bild newspaper, were held while interviewing the son of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the woman sentenced to death by stoning for adultery.

Germany's foreign minister travelled to Tehran on Saturday to bring them home.

Earlier, a court commuted the 20-month jail term imposed on the journalists to a fine, which has been paid.

"I am very happy that Marcus Hellwig and Jens Koch are finally able to return to us in Germany as free people," German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Bild newspaper.

'Listened and cried'

Mr Koch's father, Andreas Hartmann, told the newspaper he was overjoyed.

"I think I did not say anything on the telephone, I just listened and cried uncontrollably," he said, according to AFP news agency.

On Saturday, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle travelled to Iran, the first trip by a German foreign minister to the country since 2003.

Mr Westerwelle met with his counterpart Ali Akbar Salehi and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during the visit.

He told reporters in Berlin that he hoped Mr Koch and Mr Hellwig could "quickly return to a normal life".

On Saturday, state media said the reporters were found guilty of committing acts against Iran's national security.

Quoting a judiciary statement, Isna agency said trial hearings were held for the two men and that, after "examining the accusation of acting against national security, they were sentenced to a 20-month jail term".

It added: "But because of their special situation and it is clear that they were used by one of the others accused in this case, it was felt that they deserved Islamic compassion and commuting of the sentence... from 20 months in prison to 500 million rials (about $50,000, £31,000) fine for each."

Stoning case

Tehran said the Germans had entered the country illegally, on tourist visas, and did not obtain the accreditation required for journalists.

Image caption The journalists were held for four months

More than 100 prominent Germans had signed an open letter to the Iranian government calling for their release.

Ms Ashtiani, 43, was convicted in 2006 of adultery and sentenced to death by stoning, sparking international condemnation.

Her sentence has since been commuted but she could still be hanged for her husband's murder.

Last year, Ms Ashtiani was filmed confessing to her part in the murder and taking part in a re-enactment, which was shown on Iranian TV.

However, campaigners have cast doubt on the validity of her confession.

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