x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Aircraft on its way to Iran for jailed US hikers, says Oman

After Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, says American pair could be released within days on a total of $1m bail, Iran's judiciary says the plan was still being reviewed.

American hikers Shane Bauer (left) and Josh Fattal in  court in Tehran in February. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on September 13 that the two will soon be released. REUTERS / PRESS TV
American hikers Shane Bauer (left) and Josh Fattal in court in Tehran in February. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on September 13 that the two will soon be released. REUTERS / PRESS TV

MUSCAT // Oman has sent a plane to Tehran as part of efforts to win a bail-for-freedom deal for two American hikers jailed for spying, an official in Oman's foreign ministry said.

The country played a similar role in bringing a third member of the group, Sarah Shourd, from Iran last year after the payment of US$500,000 bail (Dh1.84 million).

The official gave no further details on the possible release of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, both 29, who were detained along the Iran-Iraq border in July 2009.

Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said the Americans could be released within days on a total of $1 million bail.

But Iran's judiciary said the plan was still being reviewed.

The statement by the hard-line judiciary appears to be a message that only its officials can set the timetables and conditions on any possible release and not the president, who is involved in a bitter power struggle with Iran's ruling clerics, who control the courts.

It also could be a swipe at Mr Ahmadinejad's hopes of timing the release or Mr Bauer and Mr Fattal with his expected arrival in New York next week for the UN general assembly.

On Tuesday, the defence lawyer Masoud Shafiei said that the court handling the case set bail of $500,000 each for the Americans.

They were detained in July 2009 while hiking along the Iran-Iraq border and accused of espionage.

A third American, Sarah Shourd, was released last year on the same bail - but only after similar mixed messages between Mr Ahmadinejad and the judiciary over the timing.

Ms Shourd left Iran on a private jet to Oman just as Mr Ahmadinejad was heading for New York.

The judiciary statement suggests that the bail plan for Mr Bauer and Mr Fattal still needs to be approved by the higher ranks of Iran's legal system, which include members of the theocracy's inner circle.

"Two American citizens charged with espionage have not been released. Request from lawyers of these two defendants to issue bail and free (them) is under study," the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency quoted a statement as saying. "Information about this case will be provided by the judiciary. Any information supplied by individuals about this is not authoritative," the statement added, in a clear jab at Mr Ahmadinejad.

Mr Bauer and Mr Fattal were sentenced last month to each serve three years in prison for illegal entry into Iran and five years each for spying for the United States.

They have denied the charges and appealed the verdicts. Ms Shourd's case remains open.

The Americans say they may have mistakenly crossed into Iran when they stepped off a dirt road while hiking near a waterfall in Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region.

The US government has appealled for the two men to be released, insisting that they have done nothing wrong.

The two countries have no direct diplomatic relations and Washington relies on the Swiss Embassy in Tehran to follow the case.

Mr Ahmadinejad, in an interview on Tuesday on the US news programme Today, predicted the Americans could be freed "in a couple of days".

He described the bail offer as a "humanitarian gesture" and repeated complaints about attention for Iranians held in US prisons.

Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, said the US was "encouraged" by Mr Ahmadinejad's comments about freeing Mr Bauer and Mr Fattal.

"We obviously hope that we will see a positive outcome from what appears to be a decision by the government," Mrs Clinton said at the State Department on Tuesday.

The families of Mr Bauer and Mr Fattal are "overjoyed" by the reports from Iran.

Mr Shafiei said the court would begin the process to free Bauer and Fattal after payment of the bail, which must be arranged through third parties because of US economic sanctions on Iran.

The timing of the court's decision is similar to last year's bail deal mediated by Oman that freed Ms Shourd.

"They accepted to set bail to release," Mr Shafiei said after leaving court. "The amount is the same for Sarah."

The families of Mr Bauer and Mr Fattal said in a joint statement that the pair's freedom "means more to us than anything and it's a huge relief to read that they are going to be released".

"We're grateful to everyone who has supported us and looking forward to our reunion with Shane and Josh.

"We hope to say more when they are finally back in our arms."