x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Muslim and Christian envoys urge Iran to free US hitchhikers jailed for spying

Iran¿s courts have considered a deal to set aside the eight-year prison sentences given to Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal and release them on $500,000 bail each but the hard-line judiciary has not given any timetable for a possible release.

TEHRAN // A group of US Christian and Muslim envoys was returning from Tehran yesterday after holding talks with the Iranian president about the possible release of two Americans jailed as spies.

The president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who appeared to be trying to get them freed in time for his arrival at the UN General Assembly, also left yesterday for New York empty-handed.

Complicating the US$1 million (Dh3.67m) bail-for-freedom proposal is a deepening internal rift between Mr Ahmadinejad and the country's ruling clerics, who control the courts.

The president's rivals in Iran might be seeking to hold up the deal, in part to deprive him of the chance to claim credit on the world stage for the release of the Americans, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, both 29, who were arrested in July 2009 along the Iraq-Iran border.

The interfaith delegation from the US said that during their week-long visit, which came at Mr Ahmadinejad's invitation, they urged Mr Ahmadinejad and other officials to release the men on humanitarian grounds.

Iran's courts have considered a deal to set aside the men's eight-year prison sentences and release them on $500,000 bail each.

But the hard-line judiciary has not given any timetable for a possible release. Last September, a third American who was arrested with the two men, Sarah Shourd, was released after a similar bail payment and a nearly identical tussle between the president and his rivals in the judiciary.

The three Americans, friends from their days at the University of California at Berkeley, deny the charges.

Their families say they were hiking in northern Iraq's scenic and relatively peaceful Kurdish region when they may have accidentally strayed over the unmarked border with Iran. Tehran accused them of spying for the United States.