Iran’s Judiciary Clouds Fate of American Hikers

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Iran’s Judiciary Clouds Fate of American Hikers

Post by ToddS on Wed Sep 14, 2011 10:30 am

Iran’s Judiciary Clouds Fate of American Hikers

By ALAN COWELL and RICK GLADSTONE
Published: September 14, 2011

LONDON — The Iranian judiciary on Wednesday contradicted an assurance by Iran‘s president that two Americans arrested two years ago while hiking the Iran-Iraq frontier and imprisoned on espionage charges would be freed as a humanitarian gesture, the state news media reported.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad disclosed the plan on Tuesday in a move that seemed timed to portray him more favorably before he attends the United Nations General Assembly meeting next week. But the judiciary’s announcement could prove to be deeply embarrassing, showing the limits of his power and highlighting the frictions between Mr. Ahmadinejad and the conservatives who control the courts.

Specifically, the apparent conflict over the Americans’ legal status could reflect a worsening rift between Mr. Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the nation’s spiritual leader and highest authority, who is closely allied to the courts.

On Wednesday, the state media reported that “Iran’s judiciary has refuted recent media reports on the imminent release of two American nationals that were convicted of committing espionage against the Islamic Republic for the U.S. government.”

“The two Americans are going to stay in prison for a bit longer. Reports of their imminent release are wrong,” a judiciary official was quoted as saying.

The semiofficial Fars news agency said a judge was still reviewing a request by lawyers for the two men that they be freed on bail. “Only the judiciary is authorized to reveal information on this case,” Fars quoted a judiciary statement as saying.

The remarks by President Ahmadinejad in a television interview from Tehran with NBC’s “Today” show, came a month after the two Americans, Shane M. Bauer and Joshua F. Fattal, both 29, were sentenced to eight years in prison for spying and trespassing, charges that they have denied.

The sentence was considered unusually harsh and seen as an increasingly tough public relations problem abroad for Mr. Ahmadinejad, even when considering the United States and Iran’s longstanding estrangement.

It was unclear whether Mr. Ahmadinejad’s readiness to free the Americans would create an opening for an improvement in those relations. But it was welcomed by the families of the two men.

“Shane and Josh’s freedom means more to us than anything,” the families said in a statement on Tuesday, “and it’s a huge relief to read that they are going to be released. We’re grateful to everyone who has supported us and looking forward to our reunion with Shane and Josh. We hope to say more when they are finally back in our arms.”

A Web site devoted to their cause, FreetheHikers.org, led its home page with the headline: “Iran Says Shane and Josh to Be Released by Thursday!”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was cautious in her reaction, but said she was encouraged.

“We obviously hope that we will see a positive outcome from what appears to be a decision by the government,” she said in Washington, without referring specifically to Mr. Ahmadinejad.

Asked in the “Today” interview with Ann Curry about the case against the Americans, Mr. Ahmadinejad said, “I think these two persons will be freed in a couple of days.”

But he repeated complaints about what he said were the unjust imprisonment of Iranians in the United States, and said that Mr. Bauer and Mr. Fattal were well cared for in Iran’s penal system. “It’s like staying in a hotel,” he said.

The Iranian authorities have never publicly provided evidence to support their accusations that the hikers were American spies, and a wide range of outside voices, including Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations and the human rights group Amnesty International, have called for their unconditional release.

The Iranians have filed similar cases against American citizens, including Roxana Saberi, a journalist who was also sentenced in 2009 to eight years on espionage charges she denied — only to be released with great fanfare as a humanitarian gesture.

Mr. Bauer, Mr. Fattal and a third American hiker, Sarah E. Shourd, were arrested near the Iraqi border with Iran in July 2009 by border guards who said they had intentionally trespassed on Iranian territory.

Ms. Shourd was released on $500,000 bail in September 2010 — also just before the annual General Assembly — and returned to the United States.

Mr. Bauer, Mr. Fattal and Ms. Shourd, all graduates of the University of California, Berkeley, were in the Middle East to study or travel. They said they made an innocent mistake in wandering over the unmarked border, crossing when a soldier of unknown nationality waved for them to approach. They were only then told they had crossed into Iran and were arrested, according to Ms. Shourd, who is Mr. Bauer’s fiancée.

Despite Mr. Ahmadinejad’s suggestion that Mr. Bauer and Mr. Fattal would be released without conditions, there was confusion about whether they, too, would be required to post what the Iranian judiciary calls bail — in effect, a ransom payment for their freedom.

A lawyer for the two men, Masoud Shafiei, was quoted by the Fars news agency as saying that their families had been informed of the bail terms and that “Bauer and Fattal can leave Iran similar to Sarah Shourd.”

Mr. Shafiei said the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which looks after American interests, had also been informed.

Iran and the United States have not had diplomatic ties since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and the two countries are at odds over Iran’s nuclear program and its hostility toward Israel.

The plan to free the two men was reported just a week after Iran made its first counterproposal in two years to ease the confrontation with the West over its nuclear program.

Fereydoon Abbasi, the head of Iran’s atomic energy agency, offered to allow international inspectors “full supervision” of the country’s nuclear activities for the next five years in return for the lifting of international sanctions.

Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but the Western powers suspect it is designed to build atomic weapons. The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, said on Tuesday that Iran was ready for further talks “with respect to cooperation on common ground” and said a “misunderstanding” about its nuclear program could be cleared up through “positive, constructive” contacts, according to Press TV, an Iranian satellite network that broadcasts in English.

Alan Cowell reported from London, and Rick Gladstone from New York. Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting from Washington.


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