Two US hikers, jailed for more than two years for spying in Iran, ran into the arms of their loved ones Wednesday after being released on bail and flown to Oman.
Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, both 29, sprinted down the steps of the Omani Royal Air Force plane that brought them to a private Muscat airport, smiling and shouting happily as they hugged their parents and Bauer’s fiance, Sarah Shourd, who had been imprisoned with them until last year.
US President Barack Obama hailed the release, telling reporters in New York: “We are thrilled” while their families said in a joint statement it is “the best day of our lives.”
The pair was released earlier Wednesday from Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, after more than two years in jail for spying and illegal entry into Iran, after the Gulf sultanate of Oman paid their bail.
Their case poisoned already difficult relations between Tehran and Washington and the release came as President Mahmud Ahmadinejad was in New York for the UN General Assembly.
The pair spend more than half an hour at an airport hall with their families and US embassy members before addressing reporters briefly and then they were whisked off to an unknown destination.
“We are so happy that we are free now,” Fattal said, thanking Sultan Qaboos bin Said for their relate and Oman for hosting them and their families.
Bauer added: “Two years in prison is too long. We sincerely hope for the freedom of other political prisoners in America and Iran.”
They left in a convoy of five US embassy cars and 12 Omani police vehicles as airport officials declined to disclose any information on where they were heading.
Bauer’s mother and father were in Oman to welcome him, along with his two sisters, Shourd and Fattal’s father, mother and brother.
Wearing light-coloured shirts and black trousers, Fattal and Bauer ran down the steps of the plane smiling and shouting happily as they hugged their parents and took photographs with them.
“They are healthy, happy and strong,” Fattal’s father told AFP.
The sultan’s envoy to Iran who mediated for their release, Salim al-Ismaili, arrived with them on the same plane. “After all the effort I’ve exerted, I’m going to need a one-year vacation,” he told reporters.
A message by the families thanked Sultan Qaboos, his envoy, their Iranian lawyer Masoud Shafii and the Swiss Ambassador to Iran “for working to make today a reality.”
“We have waited for nearly 26 months for this moment,” said the statement which was also signed by fellow hiker Sarah Shourd, Bauer’s fiancee, who was released last year.
“The joy and relief we feel at Shane and Josh’s long-awaited freedom knows no bounds. We now all want nothing more than to wrap Shane and Josh in our arms, catch up on two lost years and make a new beginning, for them and for all of us.”
Obama called the release “wonderful news” and said: “I could not feel better for their families and those moms who we have been in close contact with, its a wonderful day for them and for us.”
Obama also said Washington was “deeply grateful” to Sultan Qaboos, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani the Swiss government, and to US partners and allies who had worked to facilitate the release, a White House statement said.
A statement by Oman’s foreign ministry said Muscat “hopes this humanitarian initiative will be followed by other positive initiatives that would help achieve rapprochement between both the Americans and the Iranians… to achieve stability in the region.”
Oman also thanked Iran “for responding to the efforts” leading to the pair’s release, the Oman News Agency reported.
The pair were released earlier Wednesday into the custody of the Swiss embassy in Tehran which looks after US interests there as Iran and the United States have no diplomatic ties.
They were driven from Evin prison to Tehran’s Mehrabad airport for their freedom flight.
Iran’s official news agency IRNA reported their departure for Mehrabad airport and said the Swiss ambassador and an Omani delegation had been present when they were released from Evin.
Oman, a US Gulf ally which has good relations with Iran, agreed to pay bail of five billion rials ($400,000) for each man, their lawyer said.
Oman had also paid bail of $500,000 for the release of Shourd, the third hiker released last year on humanitarian and medical grounds. She also made her way home via Muscat.
Ahmadinejad told US media last week that the pair would be released imminently and on Tuesday told US television network ABC they would walk free “very soon.”
But delays emerged as the judiciary, dominated by ultra-conservatives, said no decision had yet been taken and that it was studying a bail application from the pair’s lawyer.
However, the release on bail of the two Americans, has already been approved by one judge, and Shafii had been told on Sunday to expect the second judge to return to work on Tuesday.
Bauer and Fattal were arrested along with Shourd near the mountainous border with Iraq on July 31, 2009. All three have consistently maintained they innocently strayed into Iran while hiking in Iraq’s Kurdistan region.
On August 21, Bauer and Fattal were each sentenced to eight years in prison by a revolutionary court in Tehran on charges of espionage and illegal entry. They have appealed against the ruling.
Their arrests angered Washington which already has deep differences with Tehran over its controversial nuclear programme, its refusal to recognise Israel and its support for militant groups in the Middle East.
Obama regarded the jail terms handed down against the pair as “an abomination,” top White House diplomatic nominee Wendy Sherman told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this month.
Shourd, a teacher, writer and women’s rights activist, met Bauer, a fluent Arabic-speaking freelance journalist, while helping to organise demonstrations in the US against the war in Iraq. The two moved to Damascus together in 2008.
Fattal, who grew up in Pennsylvania, is an environmentalist and teacher. He travelled in 2009 to Damascus, where he met Shourd and Bauer.