NYT: American Hikers Freed in Iran, State Media Report

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NYT: American Hikers Freed in Iran, State Media Report

Post by Shirley on Wed Sep 21, 2011 9:27 am

American Hikers Freed in Iran, State Media Report

Published: September 21, 2011

LONDON — Iranian state-run media said Wednesday that two Americans arrested two years ago while hiking along the Iran-Iraq frontier and imprisoned on espionage charges had been released.

There were strong indications that the men, Shane M. Bauer and Joshua F. Fattal, both 29, had left the prison where they were being held and were on their way out of the country, though it was not clear where they would be immediately taken. Last week, the Gulf nation of Oman sent a plane to Iran for the purpose of fetching the men, The Associated Press said.

A Swiss diplomatic convoy that entered the prison shortly before the announcement was seen departing, according to news reports. Masoud Shafiei, the lawyer acting for the Americans, had said the two would be handed over to Swiss diplomats who represent American interests in Iran in the absence of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Washington, The A.P. reported.

The release of the men followed days of optimism and uncertainty over the fate of the Americans after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised last week that they would be freed as a humanitarian gesture “in a couple of days.” The announcement by Mr. Ahmadinejad appeared calibrated to garner favorable attention before the Iranian leader flew to New York to attend this week’s United Nations General Assembly meeting.

But soon after his announcement, Iran’s judiciary denied that the men would be freed imminently, saying it had exclusive authority to order their release.

Iran’s state-controlled Press TV satellite broadcaster said on Wednesday that, this time, the judiciary had approved their release.

“I have got necessary signatures from judiciary officials for their release on bail,” Mr. Shafiei was quoted by Reuters as saying. Last week, the lawyer said the men, who were sentenced to eight years in prison on spying and trespassing charges, would be freed on bail of $500,000 each. The men have denied the charges against them.

Mr. Bauer, Mr. Fattal and a third American hiker, Sarah E. Shourd, were arrested near northern Iraq’s border with Iran in July 2009 by Iranian border guards, who contended they had intentionally trespassed.

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

The judiciary’s move last week was seen as a very public rebuke by Iran’s conservative establishment to the president and came as the latest reminder of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s deep split with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, once his most ardent ally.

“The conservatives are trying to establish the fact that Ahmadinejad is not their boss,” Vali Nasr, a professor at Tufts University and an expert in Iranian affairs, said last week. “He is a weakened president and they are perfectly comfortable embarrassing him. It is a signal that it is perfectly O.K. to attack him, and you might get brownie points for doing it.”

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

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

Iran’s detention of the Americans has aggravated what was already a tense relationship which has been fraught since the break in diplomatic ties following the 1979 Islamic revolution and the subsequent takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran.

The two countries are also at odds over Iran’s nuclear program and its hostility toward Israel.

Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes but Western powers suspect it is designed to build atomic weapons.

Alan Cowell reported from London and J. David Goodman from New York.

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