Alan Cowell J. David Goodman – New York Times September 21, 2011
Two Americans arrested while hiking along the Iran-Iraq frontier two years ago and sentenced to eight years for espionage were released Wednesday and left the country by plane, their families said in a statement.
The men, Shane M. Bauer and Joshua F. Fattal, both 29, left Evin prison in a diplomatic convoy including Swiss and Omani officials and immediately headed to the airport where they departed on a flight for the Gulf state of Oman, where members of their families were gathered.
“We now all want nothing more than to wrap Shane and Josh in our arms, catch up on two lost years and make a new beginning, for them and for all of us,” read a joint statement released by the families after the plane had taken off from Tehran.
The release of the two Americans followed days of uncertainty over their fate after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised last week that they would be freed as a humanitarian gesture “in a couple of days.” The announcement by Mr. Ahmadinejad appeared calibrated to garner favorable attention before the Iranian leader flew to New York to attend this week’s United Nations General Assembly meeting.
But soon after his announcement, Iran’s judiciary denied that the men would be freed imminently, saying it had exclusive authority to order their release.
On Wednesday, Iranian state media said that this time the judiciary had approved their release.
“I have finished the job that I had to do,” Masoud Shafiei, the lawyer, told The Associated Press. He said the men, who were sentenced to eight years in prison on spying and trespassing charges, were freed on bail of $500,000 each. The men have denied the charges against them.
Mr. Bauer, Mr. Fattal and a third American hiker, Sarah E. Shourd, who is Mr. Bauer’s fiancée, were arrested near northern Iraq’s border with Iran in July 2009 by Iranian border guards, who contended they had intentionally trespassed.
Ms. Shourd was released on $500,000 bail in September 2010 — also with help from Omani officials and just before the annual General Assembly meeting — and returned to the United States. She was among the family members waiting in Oman on Wednesday for the arrival of the two Americans.
Though the spying case against all three hikers remained open, they were not expected to return to Iran.
The judiciary’s move last week was seen as a very public rebuke by Iran’s conservative establishment to the president and came as the latest reminder of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s deep split with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, once his most ardent ally.
“The conservatives are trying to establish the fact that Ahmadinejad is not their boss,” Vali Nasr, a professor at Tufts University and an expert in Iranian affairs, said last week. “He is a weakened president and they are perfectly comfortable embarrassing him. It is a signal that it is perfectly O.K. to attack him, and you might get brownie points for doing it.”
The Iranian authorities have never publicly provided evidence to support their contention that the hikers were American spies, and a wide range of outside voices, including United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the human rights advocacy organization Amnesty International, had called for their unconditional release.
Ms. Shourd has said that she, Mr. Bauer and Mr. Fattal made an innocent mistake in wandering over the unmarked border, crossing when a soldier of unknown nationality waved to them to approach. They were only then told they had crossed into Iran and were arrested, Ms. Shourd, who is Mr. Bauer’s fiancée, has said. The three friends are graduates of the University of California, Berkeley.
Iran’s detention of the Americans has aggravated what was already a tense relationship which has been fraught since the break in diplomatic ties following the 1979 Islamic revolution and the subsequent takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran.
The two countries are also at odds over Iran’s nuclear program and its hostility toward Israel.
Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes but Western powers suspect it is designed to build atomic weapons.
Alan Cowell reported from London and J. David Goodman from New York.