CHICAGO (Reuters) - Boxing great Muhammad Ali, one of the most prominent U.S. Muslims, has appealed to Iran's supreme leader to show mercy and free two Americans held on suspicion of espionage, families of the men said on Wednesday.
Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal were arrested in July 2009 along the Iraq border -- they said they may have inadvertently crossed into Iran while hiking -- in a case that has further strained relations between the United States and Iran, already frayed over Iran's nuclear program.
A third American, Sarah Shourd, was released on $500,000 bail in September and returned home.
The 69-year-old former world heavyweight champion, who said he was welcomed warmly on a past visit to Tehran, asked in a letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that "mercy" be shown for the two men, said Jeanie Kahnke, a spokeswoman for the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky.
"I am humbled by the compassion you gave to their young female friend Sarah Shourd, by allowing her to return to her family. I ask the same mercy and compassion be given to them as well," said the letter, which was dated February 1.
A copy of the letter was provided by the men's families, who issued a statement saying: "We are deeply grateful to Mr. Ali and the many other people around the world who know that Shane and Josh absolutely do not deserve to be in prison. We hope and pray that Iran hears this appeal and responds with compassion. It is time for this nightmare to end."
Bauer and Fattal pleaded not guilty in a closed-door court appearance on February 6, according to state-run television. An official told the IRNA news agency their trial would start on May 11.
(Reporting by Andrew Stern; Editing by Peter Cooney)