Iran’s judiciary says U.S. hikers aren’t being released

September 14, 2011

Iran’s judiciary on Wednesday denied President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statements that two American hikers convicted of spying were being pardoned and would be released within two days.

In a statement published in Farsi on its Web site, the judiciary, which constitutionally is independent from other powers in Iran, said it was “not correct” that Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal would be released in the coming days under a “unilateral pardon” that Ahmadinejad said Tuesday he intended to grant.

However, there were signs Wednesday of efforts to put up the $1 million bail that the hikers’ lawyer said court officials told him would be required to gain the release of the two men. The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the Persian Gulf state of Oman had sent a private plane to Tehran, as the lawyer and the Swiss Embassy, which represents U.S. diplomatic interests in Iran, moved ahead with arrangements for the bail of $500,000 each for Bauer and Fattal.

In September 2010, a private jet was sent from Oman to Tehran to pick up Sarah Shourd, an American arrested with Bauer and Fattal, after Iranian authorities decided to release her on medical and humanitarian grounds and an Omani businessman paid her $500,000 bail.

The Obama administration pressed for additional information about the fate of the two men, but details remained scant. State Department officials said Wednesday that they were encouraged by the initial reports about the pending release but that they had heard nothing definitive from Iran or the Swiss government.

“We’re hopeful that we’ll see a positive outcome,” said spokesman Mark Toner.

Bauer and Fattal, both 29, were arrested with Shourd as they hiked along the Iran-Iraq border in July 2009. Last month, the men were sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of espionage.

“The news of pardoning two Americans convicted of spying that had been mentioned by some media is denied,” the judiciary’s statement said. It acknowledged that the men’s case is under review but stressed that the judiciary is the only valid source to comment on the matter.

“Any information given by other people is not correct,” the statement read.

The judiciary did not make reference in its statement to a $500,000 bail requirement. Masoud Shafiei, the Iranian lawyer representing the men, said Tuesday that the judiciary was demanding the payments.

The statement issued Wednesday highlights tensions between Ahmadinejad and the judiciary, strains that appear to be turning into an open rift over the hikers’ case.

When Shourd was released, Ahmadinejad announced that she could return home on “humanitarian grounds,” but the judiciary demanded $500,000 bail. Only after the bond was paid by an Omani businessman was Shourd allowed to return to the United States.

A year later, the judiciary continues to summon her for court cases, demonstrating its disapproval of Ahmadinejad’s action.

On Wednesday, Iran’s state-controlled media accused Ahmadinejad of acting against the constitution by saying he intended to grant Bauer and Fattal a “unilateral pardon.”

Ahmadinejad told The Washington Post and NBC News in interviews Tuesday that the hikers would be freed this week. “I am helping to arrange for their release in a couple of days so they will be able to return home,” he said.

But his decision was subject to clerical review, and Shafiei said Tuesday that it remained unclear whether the release ultimately would be decided by Ahmadinejad or the judiciary.

“I don’t know who arranged this, the court or the president,” Shafiei said. “The judiciary has said that everything is being done according to their procedures.”

Tensions have also surfaced between Ahmadinejad and Iran’s powerful Shiite Muslim clerics, for whom the judiciary is an important power base.

Ahmadinejad made his pardon overture ahead of his trip next week to New York, where he plans to attend the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly.

His effort to obtain the hikers’ release also appears to be part of a campaign in which he is increasingly pitting himself against his clerical adversaries. Ahmadinejad has shown signs of seeking to reinvent himself, shedding his image as a leader who scolded previous administrations for trying to compromise with the West and dropping hints that he wants to reform the Islamic republic.

The release of the hikers would not only close an embarrassing chapter internationally but would probably encourage middle-class urban Iranians who favor better ties with the rest of the world.

Ahmadinejad stands to win either way, some political analysts said. Even if the judiciary blocks the release of Bauer and Fattal, they said, the president could emerge looking reasonable within Iran’s power structure, while his clerical opponents — who ultimately hold the hikers’ fate in their hands — would show that they oppose compromise and change.

On the other hand, the ability of hard-liners to block the release could be seen as an embarrassment for Ahmadinejad ahead of his U.N. appearance. It could make him appear weak at home and abroad, unable to deliver on his stated commitment to pardon the hikers “on behalf of the Iranian nation.”

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