Release of U.S. hikers in Iran delayed; judge on vacation

September 19, 2011

The release of two American hikers jailed in Iran was delayed Sunday because one of the judges whose signature is required on the paperwork is on vacation, the lawyer representing the two men said.

The lawyer, Masoud Shafiei, said that when he attempted to get the two signatures required for the $1 million bail deal for Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, he was told that one of the judges who was needed to sign off on the agreement was on vacation and would return in a few days.

“They told me to return to the court with my request in some days,” Shafiei said. “They didn’t say the release was canceled, just that the other judge was on vacation and would only be able to sign the papers from Tuesday.”

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said last week that he intended to release the men, both 29, who have been held for more than two years on charges of espionage, and grant them a “unilateral pardon.’’

A day later, however, Iran’s judiciary, which is independent from other powers in the country, said the release of the hikers was not imminent.

Meanwhile, a delegation of American priests and Islamic activists that had arrived in Tehran from the United States on Tuesday, planned to return home Sunday, after having been invited by Ahmadinejad to come to Iran to help expedite the release of Bauer and Fattal.

The delegation members included Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, Archbishop Emeritus of Washington and the Rt. Rev. John Bryson Chane, Episcopal Bishop of Washington and Interim Dean of Washington National Cathedral. Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations and CAIR National Board Chairman former state Sen. Larry Shaw of North Carolina also traveled to Iran on Monday at the invitation of the Iranian president.

Awad said before leaving Tehran that the delegation had been unable to meet with Bauer and Fattal even though Iranian authorities had tried to arrange a meeting. It was unclear what had prevented the meeting at Evin prison. The delegation did, however, meet with Ahmadinejad, Shiite clerics and politicians, and were optimistic that the men would be released, Awad said.

“The release is a detail for now; the big picture is that we expedited their release, which will happen very soon,” he said.

The delay comes amid an unfolding political battle within Iran over the release of the two Americans. Ahmadinejad is embroiled in a power struggle over his controversial advisers and erratic polices, which many influential Shiite clerics who once supported him say are undermining their influence.

The delay of the Americans’ release also coincides with Ahmadinejad’s departure Monday for New York, where he and other world leaders will address the annual session of the U.N. General Assembly.

Ahmadinejad, whose government has gone on a recent international charm offensive over its controversial nuclear program and other issues, has indicated that he would favor bringing the two men to New York himself. Arriving in the United States without even securing Bauer and Fattal’s release would underscore the diminishing of Ahmadinejad’s political clout in Iran at a time when he is presenting himself internationally as the person to deal with within Iran’s complex power structure.

Some members of Iran’s parliament are objecting to the Americans’ release, demanding that the United States free an Iranian woman held in Florida since 2009 for her involvement in the attempted export of night-vision equipment to Iran. Lawmaker Zohreh Elahian told the semiofficial Fars News Agency on Sunday that Shahrzad Mir Gholikhan, 33, should be released in return for Bauer and Fattal’s freedom.

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