Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has said that the courts are willing in “the near future” to commute the prison sentences of two Americans convicted of spying. The Americans’ lawyer, meanwhile, was in court trying to arrange a US$1 million bail-for-freedom deal.
The release rests in the hands of the hard-line judiciary, and Salehi gave no clear timetable in his remarks on Saturday. He also raised the issue of Iranians held in US prisons, suggesting the Americans’ release could be drawn out to bring attention to inmates Iran wants freed.
In a case that has added to the acrimony and deep distrust between Iran and the US, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, both 29, were detained along the Iran-Iraq border in July 2009 with their friend Sarah Shourd. Shourd was released last September following mediation by the Gulf Emirate of Oman and the payment of US$500,000.
The two men were convicted of illegally entering Iran and spying for the US, and were sentenced to a total of eight years in prison.
They denied the charges and appealed the verdicts, opening the way for a possible deal to free them in exchange for US$500,000 bail each.
Salehi said at a news conference that Iran’s judiciary was ready to commute the sentences as a gesture of Islamic mercy, but he did not give any clearer indication of when they could be released.
“The judiciary’s decision is to commute [the Americans’] punishment,” the foreign minister said. “We expect the judiciary to make its decision in the near future. We hope this issue will be finalized so that both families of Iranians who are waiting [for inmates in US prisons] as well as the families of these US nationals will, God willing, hear good news,” Salehi said.
He did not specifically mention any Iranian detainee, although officials in Tehran have often complained about the alleged mistreatment of Iranians in US custody.
The Americans say they may have mistakenly crossed into Iran when they stepped off a dirt road while hiking near a waterfall in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq.
Shourd and Bauer, who got engaged after their arrest, had been living together in Damascus, Syria, where Bauer was a freelance journalist and Shourd an English teacher. Fattal, an environmental activist, went to visit them shortly before their trip to Iraq. The three are graduates of the University of California at Berkeley, where they became friends.
International efforts recently intensified to seal the bail deal for the two Americans. Mediators from Iraq and Oman have asked Iran to free them, and an Omani plane is in Tehran to carry the pair out of Iran if a deal is reached.
The Americans’ defense lawyer, Masoud Shafiei, moved ahead with bail arrangements and said he was in court “following up the case.”
Shafiei said two judges have to sign the bail papers before bail can be posted. Then, the Americans could be released, the Iranian lawyer said, adding that only one judge had signed as of Saturday.
The first word of the bail offer for Bauer and Fattal came last week from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He said the Americans could be freed in a matter of days, but Iran’s powerful judiciary then responded that the bail provisions were still under review.
The mixed signals could reflect bitter internal political feuds inside Iran between Ahmadinejad and the country’s ruling clerics, who control the courts. Ahmadinejad and his allies are accused of trying to challenge the power of Iran’s theocratic establishment.