TEHRAN (Reuters) – Iran said on Sunday it will free on bail one of three Americans accused of espionage and held for more than a year, a day after her release was unexpectedly halted by the judiciary.
The Tehran prosecutor told state television Sarah Shourd would be freed on $500,000 bail and permitted to leave the country.
Shourd was detained near Iran’s border with Iraq in July 2009 along with two male companions, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal. Their families say the three were on a mountain hike in northern Iraq at the time.
Officials said last week Shourd would be freed on Saturday, but Iran’s judiciary suspended her release at the last minute, saying the legal process had not been completed. The delay could indicate a rift among Iran’s hardline rulers.
"The American spy can be released as soon as her $500,000 bail is deposited … She is not barred from leaving Iran but has to appear in the court at trial time," Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi said.
"The other two American hikers will remain in jail."
A lawyer representing the three, Masoud Shafie, told Reuters he met the Americans for the first time since their arrest and presented their final defenses. The prosecutor could now present his indictment, which would precede a trial.
"She will be free as soon as the bail is paid. They were fine today and they sent their love to their families when I met them at the court," Shafie said. "Detention of the other two has been extended for two months and no trial is expected soon."
David Axelrod, U.S. President Barack Obama’s chief political adviser, said: "We’re hopeful and we’re encouraged by this news but there have been starts and stops in this before, and until that actually happens we’re on a wait and see basis …
"They should never have been in jail in the first place. They’re being held under false pretences and they should be released, and we’re working very hard to see that happens," Axelrod said on NBC’s "Meet the Press."
An Iranian analyst who asked not to be named said the delay in Shourd’s release "brought to the surface the power struggle" between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other hardliners.
"Ahmadinejad wants to gain international respect after the disputed presidential vote in 2009," he said, referring to an election which the opposition says was rigged.
Another analyst said her release may be linked to Ahmadinejad’s trip to New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly later this month.
"His government has been under attack for violation of human rights. This may be a way to evade further attacks in New York," the analyst said.
State media reported on Friday that Shourd would be released as a result of intervention by Ahmadinejad, to show the "special view of Iran on the dignity of women."
Some hardline MPs criticized Shourd’s planned release, accusing the government of "meddling in the judiciary’s affairs," the Tehran-e Emrouz daily reported on Sunday.
ISNA, the student news agency, quoted the prosecutor on Sunday as defending the right of the judiciary to make the decision without outside pressure.
The judiciary chief is a brother of parliament speaker Ali Larijani, one of Ahmadinejad’s political rivals, who lost to him in a 2005 presidential vote. Larijani is a staunch critic of the president’s economic and foreign policies.
Under Iran’s Islamic law, espionage can be punishable by execution. Dolatabadi said Shourd’s release on bail was a display of Islamic clemency, based on reports that Shourd was ill and needed treatment.
Shourd said in May that she had been held in solitary confinement. Her family says Shourd has been denied treatment for health problems, including a breast lump and precancerous cervical cells.
Washington rejects the spying allegations and has demanded the detained Americans’ immediate release. Their case has further complicated relations between Tehran and Washington already fraught over Iran’s nuclear activities.
(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Janet Lawrence)