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Iran to soon free two U.S. hikers on bail, Ahmadinejad says

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Two American hikers held by Iran since 2009 will be released on bail in the coming days, Iran’s president and the men’s lawyer said Tuesday.

Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal will be freed once bail of $500,000 each is paid, attorney Masoud Shafii said. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told NBC television’s “Today” show that the men would be freed “in a couple of days.”

Bauer and Fattal, both 29-year-old graduates of UC Berkeley, were sentenced last month to eight years in prison for espionage and illegal entry. They were arrested in July 2009 with a friend, Sarah Shourd, while backpacking along the Iran-Iraq border. Shourd was released last year on bail arranged by Oman; her case remains open.

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Bauer and Fattal were tried before Iran’s controversial Revolutionary Court, responsible for dealing with national security cases.

In a statement released Tuesday, the families of Bauer and Fattal said: “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.”

News of the potential release came ahead of Ahmadinejad’s planned visit this month to the United Nations General Assembly, leading to suggestions from some analysts that the move was aimed at improving his public image inside and outside Iran.

“President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will implicitly claim that he is also the victim of the wrong decision to imprison the two hikers and has been under pressure in Iran,” said Farshad Qorbanpour, 32, an analyst close to political reformers in Iran who writes for the Farhikhtegan daily newspaper.

Ahmadinejad is likely to argue in New York that he had long wanted the two men to be released and blame the judiciary for their indictment, the analyst said.

This week Iran also inaugurated its first nuclear power plant, which led many observers to speculate that the regime was making concessions now to mitigate news coverage of a project widely criticized by Western governments and the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency.

“Releasing the two American citizens accused of espionage is in favor of Iran in general at this juncture, as Iran has shown flexibility after the pre-commissioning of Iran’s first nuclear plant in Bushehr,” said Ahmad Bakhshayesh-Ardestani, a political scientist and analyst close to the government.

The move “sends a message to the American people and administration to be flexible in any future nuclear talks,” he said.

Special correspondents Hajjar and Mostaghim reported from Beirut and Tehran, respectively.


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