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Three American hikers just marked six months in an Iranian jail. They are the unlikely symbols of a repressive regime now single-mindedly focused on security. As the opposition prepares for more protests this week, the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, it is time for the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to end the worst abuses in its criminal justice system, and release the hikers and others being used as political pawns.

Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal accidentally wandered into Iran in July from Iraqi Kurdistan, where they were mountain-hiking. They were detained by Iranian security officials and accused of espionage; last week, Iran suggested they could be released, if the U.S. released 11 Iranians it says are being held in American prisons.

One of the people on Iran's list is Mahmoud Yadegari, a Toronto man charged with illegally trying to export nuclear technology to Iran. There is no evidence that some others are in custody at all. The attempt to equate tourists with alleged nuclear traffickers, and to pretend a prisoner exchange is a just resolution to what amounts to a kidnapping, is laughable.

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But it should not be surprising; Canadians know all too well how Iranian justice can be perverted. Maziar Bahari of Newsweek magazine was captured and tortured this year. Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian photographer, never made it out alive. The selective abuse of foreigners, especially journalists and academics, is part of the government's modus operandi, as it positions itself as the only true defender of Iran.

Those inside Iran, though, know well that the government is actually interested only in its own preservation. The vise has tightened on Iranians since June's disputed presidential election. In addition to extrajudicial killings over the summer and fall, two opposition activists were executed two weeks ago; the execution of nine more is imminent.

The instinct extends to the nuclear pursuits Iran revived yesterday. They are cloaked in nationalist ambition, but amount to little more than gamesmanship, currying local favour while keeping the international community on its toes.

The hikers' situation is emblematic of the extreme depths to which the Iranian government has sunk. It preaches patriotism but, because it has lost the public's support, can rely only on force, deception and fear. Without reform, including an immediate release of political prisoners, this formula will doom the regime.

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