Two Americans jailed in Iran as spies appear on the verge of a reprieve after the Iranian president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, told U.S. news outlets that he was working to have them freed in two days.
Ahmadinejad told "The Washington Post
" and NBC television in separate interviews that Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal would be released despite being convicted last month and jailed for eight years on charges of spying and entering Iran illegally.
"I am helping to arrange for their release in a couple of days so they will be able to return home," "The Washington Post" quoted Ahmadinejad as saying during an hourlong interview at his office in Tehran. "This is, of course, going to be a unilateral humanitarian gesture."
Asked by "The Washington Post" if he would definitely be able to secure the release of Bauer and Fattal this week, Ahmadinejad said: "I hope so. I hope I will do that."
Lawyer Masud Shafiei: "They will be released."
Under Iran's theocratic system, the president's decisions are subject to clerical review.
Fattal and Bauer were arrested in July 2009 along with a third American, Sarah Shourd, near the Iranian border with Iraq, where they say were hiking in the mountains. Shourd was released on bail in September 2010 and has since returned home.
On September 13, the two Americans' Iranian lawyer, Masud Shafiei, confirmed Ahmadinejad's remarks by telling RFE/RL's Radio Farda that they would be released after posting bail.
"Today I was at the appeals court. Since my clients have been in custody for two years, the appeals court agreed to release Mr. Shane Bauer and Mr. Josh Fattal on bail, just like in Ms. Sarah Shourd's case," he said. "Naturally, I informed their families about the development. They will be released upon paying bail."
Shafiei confirmed to Radio Farda that bail for the two men had been set at $500,000 each, the same amount paid to secure Shourd's release.
NBC initially announced news of Ahmadinejad's comments -- which are due to be aired in full later on September 13 -- in a Twitter message.
Some analysts read Ahmadinejad’s announcement, which comes ahead of his trip to New York to participate in the U.N. General Assembly meeting next week, as a move to try to ease mounting diplomatic pressure on Iran.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced a cautious welcome amid an announcement from the State Department that it was trying to verify the reports through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which handles U.S. affairs in Iran because the United States has no diplomatic presence in the country.
"We are encouraged by what the Iranian government has said today, but I'm not going to comment further than that," Clinton said. "We obviously hope that we will see a positive outcome from what appears to be a decision by the government."
Bauer and Fattal's families released a joint statement welcoming the news.
“While we do not have further details at this time, we are overjoyed by the positive news reports from Iran. Shane and Josh’s freedom means more to us than anything and it’s a huge relief to read that they are going to be released," the statement said.
"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.”
Bauer, Fattal, and Shourd have always denied the spying charges against them and insisted that they entered Iran inadvertently.
Bauer and Fattal were convicted at a trial held behind closed doors and share a cell in Tehran's Evin prison.
Their supporters say evidence against them has never been made public and that the sentence came as a shock after hopes for their release had been boosted by positive comments from Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi.
Salehi had earlier said that he hoped "the trial of the two American defendants who were detained for the crime of illegally entering Iran will finally lead to their freedom."
Their subsequent conviction appeared to suggest the possibility that their case had become the subject of an internal power struggle within the Iranian political establishment.
U.S. President Barack Obama has denied that the Americans, who were working in the Middle East when they decided to hike in the scenic mountains of northern Iraq, had any links to U.S. intelligence.
The affair has heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington, which severed diplomatic ties after the storming of the U.S. Embassy in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
written by Robert Tait, based on reporting by Radio Farda and agency reports