Two American hikers jailed as spies in Iran were flown to Oman last night, finally on their way home to the US after 782 days in Tehran's Evin prison.
Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, both 29, were freed when Oman, a US ally that also has friendly relations with the Islamic republic, paid US$1 million (Dh3.67m) bail.
Their families and Sarah Shourd, who was arrested with them but freed earlier, were in Oman to meet them. They said their joy and relief "knows no bounds" and they looked forward to a new beginning.
The two Americans were widely viewed as victims in a politically motivated case, trapped in the diplomatic no-man's land between Tehran and Washington and pawns in Iran's internal power struggle.
The release will not only be a relief to the hikers and their long-suffering families, but also a boon to the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York today.
His previous visits have been marred by protests over Iran's human-rights record.
The president will hope the Americans' release overshadows outrage over Iran's grisly pre-dawn execution yesterday of a teenager convicted of killing a man in a road-rage confrontation two months ago.
The 17-year-old was hanged in public from a crane before a crowd of 15,000 as he cried for his mother and begged for mercy.
Amnesty International's Iran expert, Drewery Dyke, said: "Today we've seen the vagaries of Iran's justice system. On the one hand the hikers have been released on bail … on the other there has been a hanging of a minor which is an act that flies in the face of international law."
The Americans' nightmare began 25 months ago when they were seized by Iranian border guards as they hiked back from a well-known spot near Iran's poorly defined border with Iraqi Kurdistan.
With them was Ms Shourd, who was released last September on $500,000 bail, also paid by Oman, after 410 days in solitary confinement.
Mr Bauer and Mr Fattal were sentenced last month by a Revolutionary Court to eight years of imprisonment for espionage and illegal entry. No evidence against them has ever been made public and their families and Washington have derided the charges as ridiculous.
The two had languished for the past 25 months in a single small cell with one tiny window and fluorescent strip lights that were never switched off. They were allowed one visit from their mothers last year.
Mr Bauer, a fluent Arabic speaker, is now set to marry Ms Shourd, 33, to whom he proposed in prison in May last year, using an engagement ring woven from his prison towel.
The couple met in Damascus where she was teaching English to Iraqi refugees and where he worked as a freelance journalist.
Mr Ahmadinejad had declared last week that he was granting Mr Fattal and Mr Bauer a "unilateral pardon" and promised they would be released "in a couple of days".
But his hardline rivals in the clerical-led judiciary attempted to humiliate him by declaring it was up to the courts to decide the prisoners' fate. Domestically, however, the spat helped the Iranian president to expose his opponents in Iran's clerical establishment as vindictive and reactionary while he appeared reasonable and accommodating, some analysts said.
Hours before the two Americans were released, Alireza Molla-Soltani, 17, was hoisted from a crane and hanged for the fatal stabbing of Rouhollah Dadashi, twice winner of Iran's "strongest man" competition, in mid-July.
At his trial, the teenager said he had panicked and killed only in self-defence after the athlete had attacked him in the dark following a driving dispute. Two friends who were with him that night were sentenced to 80 lashes each.
The Islamic republic has the highest rate of executions in the world, and its use of the death penalty has soared this year. Iran on Monday alone hanged 22 alleged drug traffickers, the latest of several mass executions.
Amnesty International acknowledged the "seriousness of the crime" for which Molla-Soltani was convicted, but said "hanging a minor for acting in what appears to be self-defence is wrong and legally dubious".
Capital offences in Iran include murder, rape, armed robbery, drug trafficking, adultery, treason and espionage.
In 2005, when Mr Ahmadinejad first took office, Iran executed 85 people. Last year, that figure was more than 500, according to estimates by human-rights activists.
Tehran has also been under international pressure to end the execution of convicts who were younger than 18 at the time of the offence. Iran is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which outlaw such executions.
Iran is one of very few countries still to execute juvenile offenders, Amnesty International said. Two minors were executed in April and there were reports that a third was hanged in the same month.