Farhad Pouladi, AFP
Last updated: 14 September, 2011

Iran’s release of US hikers in doubt

Iran’s judiciary said on Wednesday that no decision has been taken on releasing two US hikers convicted of spying, a day after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisted the duo would be released soon.

“While denying… release of two Americans accused of espionage, the public relations of the judiciary announces that the request of the lawyer to post bail and free them is being studied by the case’s judge,” a statement posted on the judiciary website said.

“Any information in this regard will be issued by the judiciary and any information from other sources is not valid,” it added, alluding to tension between the executive and the judiciary.

Ahmadinejad told The Washington Post on Tuesday that Tehran would soon release Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, both 29, convicted of spying but who claimed to have accidentally strayed into the country, “in a couple of days so they will be able to return home.”

In a separate interview with US network NBC News, Ahmadinejad said the duo — whose jailing has further strained already difficult relations between Washington and Tehran — would be released “in two days.”

However, their lawyer Masoud Shafii told AFP on Wednesday that he was waiting for a judge to authorise the posting of bail for the two hikers.

“Nothing has changed since I was informed by the court (on Tuesday) of their decision to change the detention to posting bail of the 500,000 dollars,” Shafii said.

“There are two judges who have to sign the decision for me to start the process of actually posting bail. I am waiting for one of the judges who has still not signed … if he does not sign the decision by the end of the working day, 3:00 pm (1130 GMT) it will be postponed to Saturday,” the lawyer said.

“I have already informed the families and the Swiss embassy,” he added. The Swiss embassy deals with US-related affairs as Washington and Tehran have had no diplomatic relations since the aftermath of the Islamic revolution of 1979.

Ahmadinejad’s comments drew an optimistic response from the families of the hikers, who were each sentenced to eight years in jail last month on charges of espionage and illegal entry.

“While we do not have further details at this time, we are overjoyed by the positive news reports from Iran,” said a statement issued by the families.

“Shane and Josh’s freedom means more to us than anything and it’s a huge relief to read that they are going to be released,” the statement said.

A guarded US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: “We have followed this very closely and we are encouraged by what the Iranian government has said today.”

She added: “We obviously hope that we will see a positive outcome from what appears to be a decision by the government.”

London-based Amnesty International said Iran must free the two Americans immediately.

“The Iranian authorities must stop treating Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal as pawns both in their dealings with the US government and in domestic political rivalries,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“All available evidence and the authorities’ conduct throughout the trial strongly suggests that the Iranian authorities have known all along that these men were not spies,” Luther said.

“Rather, it appears they were probably held in order to try to gain political concessions from the USA.” he said in the statement.

Bauer and Fattal were arrested near the mountainous Iraq-Iran border on July 31, 2009, along with a third hiker, Sarah Shourd, 32, who was granted bail on humanitarian and medical grounds and allowed to leave Iran in September 2010.

Her bail, too, was set at $500,000 and was paid through Oman, a US Gulf ally that maintains relations with Iran.

While the government announced Shourd’s release at that time, the judiciary quickly denied it, only to free her on bail a few days later, after warning the executive branch not to interfere in the work of the judiciary.

The trio has consistently maintained that they innocently strayed across the unmarked border with Iran while hiking in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region.

The jailing of Bauer and Fattal sparked anger in Washington which already has deep differences with Tehran over its controversial nuclear programme, its refusal to recognise Israel and its support for militant groups across the Middle East.