updated 8/21/2011 10:11:40 AM ET 2011-08-21T14:11:40

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says the U.S. is "deeply disappointed" that Iran has sentenced two American to eight years in prison after their conviction on charges of espionage and illegal entry.

Clinton says Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal should be released immediately. She says "it is time for them to return home and be reunited with their families" more than two years after their arrest.

Clinton says President Barack Obama and Americans are expressing "our unflagging support" for the hikers and their families during "this difficult time.

The men were arrested in July 2009 near the Iraq-Iran border along with a third American who has since been released on bail and returned to the U.S.

They deny the charges, saying they were hiking near the ill-defined border.

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Video: Is Iran using American men as pawns?

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    >>> thank you. iran has handed down the sentence against two american men who said they accidentally hike under to the country. iran accused them of being spies and as punishment they were sentenced to eight years in prison. ali is in tehran . good morning.

    >> good morning, jenna . that's right, tehran 's chief prosecutor confirmed this morning the sentences for fattal and bauer and the court was considering all of its options including trying her. the sentences were announced by iran state-run media. tehran 's chief prosecutor accuse accusaccu announced this morning eight years prison sentence for josh fattal and shane bauer for entering the country illegally. they were arrested a little over two years ago along the iran /iraq border. they denied they were spies, saying they were hiking and crossed into iran by mistake. sarah shourd was released on bail last september. she flew back to the u.s. and never returned to iran to face trial.

    >> this could be the final --

    >> reporter: she recently spoke with lester holt expressing hopes that her friends would soon be released.

    >> that's what we're praying for. the time for compassion has finally come.

    >> reporter: before sentencing, many thought bauer and fattal would be freed with time served and a yesture of islamic compassion. now friends are concerned about the toll a long prison term would take.

    >> it's unclear what that game is and it has to be very tough.

    >> reporter: the case has highlighted differences among the ruling elite in japan. it was only two weeks ago that iran 's foreign minister said he hoped bauer and fattal would be free. the u.s. state department issued a statement, "we continue to express our hope that the iranian authorities would exercise the humanitarian of releasing these two young men." continue its backdoor diplomacy to free bauer and fattal. at this point a mew manitarian option may be the only hope for these two americans. jenna , experts i have spoken to and conventioned wisdom seem to suggest that they will be free, but relations between these two countries is terrible and iran is not in the business of doing the u.s. any favors. if they're not freed in the next two weeks, they could be here for a long time. jenna ?

    >> ali, thank you.

    >>> here to give us some insight on the iranian legal system and what the sentencing means is karen desoto. good morning.

    >> good morning.

    >> the iranian ambassador to iraq and the iranian foreign minister said they fully expect these men to be free and saturday comes and they're sentenced to eight years in prison. what happened there?

    >> we went from all the top officials saying, hey, it looks like they're going to be freed and then we get this eight-year sentence. but it's a little too soon to panic because we know in recent cases. in fact, iranian american in 2009 was let go. she was a free llance journalist and she was sentenced for eight years on the same thing and was let go during the appeals process. we have not gotten to the appeals process yet. but the disturbing part is there was a trial. america does not have a consulate. we have to rely on the swiss to be our protectors in those and, of course, our minister, the swiss minister went over there and went over to the trial and was not let into the court. some more disturbing reports is that the attorney for the defendants was not allowed to talk to them. and he was hopeful that prior to the trial that he would get an hour or two to speak to them. that's a pretty huge red flag there.

    >> that must have really hurt their case, also, when you don't even have any communication with your attorney the whole time that you're in prison.

    >> well, of course, you know, americans would say that the fix is in, but the problem is, it's very difficult for the families to speak out because nobody wants to be disrespectful and it's very nice to talk about defendants' rights. when someone is literally holding a gun to your children's head, you want to be respectful and walk on egg shells and hope that maybe they will let them free and they're not going to be used as a political chip.

    >> without that communication with their attorney, is a lot of this he said/he said as far as the evidence against these two young men.

    >> the attorney reviewed the case and no evidence of criminal acts, however, we don't know, you know, what was put on the record. we still don't know what the spying evidence is. so, are they, of course the families are saying most experts are saying that this is really just they're being used as a political chip and, therefore, they're going to be used nuclear arms and as some type of bargaining chip for talks and iraqi soldiers and iran soldiers and the treatment of the soldiers. so, this is just a whole political agenda at this point.

    >> lots to come in the coming days and weeks. karen, thank you so much for your insight, as always.

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