Tuesday, September 13, 2011

U.S. hikers jailed in Iran may be released after bail is paid

 Tehran, Iran  — Two American hikers sentenced to eight years in prison for espionage and illegal entry into Iran may be released “in a couple of days,” according to Iran’s president.

Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer will be released from Tehran’s Evin prison after a $500,000 bail is paid for each of them, their attorney, Masoud Shafiee, said Tuesday. The attorney said the hikers’ families are attempting to get the money.

The two have been imprisoned in Iran for more than two years. They and a third hiker, Sarah Shourd, were seized on July 31, 2009, while hiking in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.

They apparently strayed across an unmarked border and were unaware they had crossed into Iran. Iranian authorities arrested them, claiming they were spies and had entered the country illegally.

Shourd, who is now Bauer’s fiancee, was released last year for medical reasons, although authorities said her case remains open.

“They illegally crossed our borders and they were arrested by the border guards,” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told NBC in an interview that aired Tuesday. “We tried last year to free one of the three persons and we are also trying to make arrangements for the freedom of the other two. I think these two persons will be freed in a couple of days.”

He said Fattal and Bauer are enjoying “very good conditions here in prison … it’s like staying in a hotel.”

The hikers’ families are “hopeful” at the news, said spokeswoman Samantha Topping. She refused comment on what the families are doing to help secure Fattal and Bauer’s release.

“We are aware of these reports, and we are working through the Swiss Protecting Power to get more details from the Iranian authorities,” said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. Because the United States does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, the Swiss represent American interests in Tehran.

Other senior State Department officials said they are proceeding cautiously, as Iran has made similar claims in the past. However, one official said, “It seems to be true.”

Ahmadinejad suggested in the interview that there is a need for the United States to release Iranians held in its jails.

“It’s not only about two people in Iran … I think the problem is in the approach of the American politicians and leaders,” Ahmadinejad told NBC. The United States, he said, is “so hostile against us.”

“OK, these two persons will be released,” he said. “Is it going to be over? We do it, for example, in (a) humanitarian gesture. Is it going to solve the problems? I hope so.”

The Tehran Prosecutor’s office had said it had “compelling evidence” that the three were cooperating with U.S. intelligence agencies, Iran’s state-run Press TV reported.

Last month, Fattal and Bauer were convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison — five years for espionage and three years for illegal entry, according to Iranian media. Their attorney appealed the sentence. That appeal is still pending.

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