Iran to release one of three detained U.S. hikers on bail

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By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 13, 2010

TEHRAN - Iranian judicial authorities on Sunday said they would free an American woman on $500,000 bail after earlier scuttling a government-organized release ceremony that had been set for Saturday.

Sarah Shourd, 32, one of three Americans being held here on charges of illegal entry and spying, will be released and will be free to leave the country once the bail money is paid, Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi told Iranian media. He said Shourd is sick, which led to the decision to free her.

"Based on reports and the approval of the relevant judge about the sickness of Ms. Shourd, her detention was converted to $500,000 bail, and if the bail is deposited, she can be released," the official Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Dolatabadi as saying.

Shourd's mother has said her daughter has been denied treatment for serious health problems, including a lump in her breast and precancerous cervical cells.

The reversal by prosecutors comes after what appeared to be a struggle between the government and Iran's independent judiciary. The initial decision to cancel Shourd's release had been seen as an embarrassment for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had intervened to arrange for Shourd to go free in what was billed as a gesture of goodwill for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.

The bail is likely to be arranged through the U.S.-interests section of the Swiss Embassy, since the United States does not have an embassy of its own in Tehran. Iranian law does not prevent suspects from leaving the country during their bail period. There has been no announcement on when Shourd will be freed after the bail is paid, but her attorney said it would not be longer than a couple of days.

"She could be freed within two or three days. I am now waiting for the embassy to confirm the bail money is ready," said Masoud Shafii, the attorney."I have told both the family and the Swiss Embassy that we need this money. I don't know who will pay."

There could be legal problems in paying the bail. According to new U.S. sanctions on Iran imposed in July, it is illegal to transfer any amount from the United States to the Islamic Republic, especially when the receiver is the Iranian state. Intermediates of such transactions are punishable under U.S. law. Exemptions can be made only upon the special order of President Obama.

In an appearance Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," senior White House adviser David Axelrod said the news from Iran was encouraging, "but there have been starts and stops in this before."

Axelrod said he would not comment on prospects of getting the two men released, "because we're at a sensitive stage here."

At the State Department, spokesman P.J. Crowley said, "We continue to hope and work for the release of all three hikers."

Shafii said he had met Sunday with Shourd and her two friends Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal in the prison where they have been held since their arrest in July 2009. Shourd was doing "okay, under the circumstances," Shafii said.

Samantha Topping, a publicist working for the hikers' families, declined to comment on the situation. A statement on a Facebook site created for supporters said: "Thanks to ALL for your support. . . . What we need now more than ever is your support in getting Sarah, Shane and Josh released. Peaceful communication is most supportive to us during this intensely challenging time, especially as it honors the values that Sarah, Shane and Josh hold so dear."

The detentions of Bauer and Fattal have been extended for another two months, the prosecutor said, adding that the court case against the three Americans is nearly finished and all are indicted on charges of spying. "The suspects did not confess, but we have enough reasons in hand for their spying charges," Dolatabadi said.

Critics of Ahmadinejad denounced the decision to release Shourd. Senior lawmaker Ahmad Tavakoli said the move had humiliated the independence of the judiciary and was an insult to the nation. He said Ahmadinejad had acted by himself in announcing Shourd's release."This is a reward to Koran burners," Tavakoli said of the freeing of Shourd."When America receives such signals and reactions from us, they will get a false impression that pressures, severe threats, together with such kind of behaviors [as the possible release of Shourd] will be useful, and they will increase their pressures day by day," Tavakoli told the semi-official Fars news agency.

Iranian authorities say the Americans deliberately crossed into Iranian territory, but family members say the group was hiking in the Kurdish mountains and may have accidently entered Iran.Relatives have denied that the three are spies.

Staff writer Robert Barnes contributed to this report.

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