Two Americans imprisoned in Iran since July 2009 and recently convicted of spying are about to be released, according to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A lawyer for the pair indicates that bail of half a million dollars has been set for each man.
The declaration Tuesday by President Ahmadinejad that the two imprisoned American hikers were about to be released comes as a hopeful sign that the men's 25-month-long ordeal may soon be over. It was not, however, the first time that Ahmadinejad had made such an announcement, before hopes were later dashed.
Americans Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal were given eight-year prison sentences last month after an Iranian court convicted them of espionage. The pair was detained, along with a third American, Sarah Shourd, for illegally entering the country in July 2009 after hiking in the vicinity of the Iraq-Iran border.
Shourd was released on bail of half a million dollars last September and left Iran. An attorney for Bauer and Fattal told several news agencies Tuesday that bail for the same sum had been set for the two men.
Sarah Shourd told VOA recently that her two friends were innocent of the charges and that she hoped they would soon be released: “I close my eyes and I can see them in my mind, all the time. I know that they're still in that cell, they don't know when they're going to get out, and they're two beautiful people, two innocent people that don't deserve to be there, that should never have been there in the first place,” she stated.
According to Iran's Fars News Agency, Iran's President Ahmadinejad is due to address students at New York's Columbia University this month, during an expected visit to the United Nations General Assembly.
Analysts expressed caution amid the hopeful signs of the hikers' release.
Iranian-born analyst Alex Vatanka of the Middle East Institute in Washington thinks that an internal struggle between President Ahmadinejad and others in the Iranian power structure, including the country's supreme leader, may derail the release of the U.S. captives:
“The Iranian judiciary does not answer to President Ahmadinejad. It's beholden and answers only to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And, clearly, what we're witnessing here is again part of this infighting in the regime, where on the one hand President Ahmadinejad would want to make certain gestures towards the United States, Vatanka said. "The supreme leader on the other hand, wants to contain Ahmadinejad and certainly does not want the president to be in the lead in terms of negotiations with the United States.”
The head of Iran's judiciary, Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, was appointed by Iran's supreme leader and along with his brother, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, has clashed repeatedly with President Ahmadinejad in recent years.
Still, the attorney for the U.S. hikers, Masoud Shafii, told VOA's Persian News Network on Tuesday that while the case is not yet dropped, Tehran's appeal court said it will accepted the half-million bail payments.
Relatives of the hikers in the U.S. have yet to comment. But Shafii says if the sum is paid, the men will be released "as soon as possible."