TEHRAN (Reuters) – Iran yesterday freed two US men it jailed for over two years on espionage charges after $500,000 bail for each was paid by Oman, Reuters witnesses and diplomatic sources said.
Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, who were arrested while hiking along the Iraq-Iran border in 2009 and denied being spies, left for Tehran’s airport in a convoy escorted by Omani officials and including the ambassador of Switzerland, witnesses said.
Their release was flagged last week by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, saying it would be a “humanitarian” gesture ahead of his annual trip to the United Nations in New York, but their fate remained uncertain until the last minute.
Trying to divert attention from his fading standing in the Islamic Republic, Ahmadinejad told US media last week the two US citizens recently sentenced to eight years in prison for alleged espionage would be let go “in a couple of days”.
But Iran’s judiciary, controlled by rival conservative hardliners, immediately and publicly humiliated Ahmadinejad by ruling out any imminent release of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, highlighting the president’s deepening credibility deficit.
Bauer and Fattal were arrested on July 31, 2009 near Iran’s border with Iraq along with a third American, Sarah Shourd. The trio, in their late 20s and early 30s, said they were only on a hiking holiday at the time.
The two men were sentenced to eight years in prison last month. Shourd was released on $500,000 bail in September last year and allowed to fly home.
The US government denied that the three Americans were spies and their supporters say that no evidence against them was evermade public. Their trial was held behind closed doors.
Some US commentators said the bail money was more like ransom as all sides know there is little chance any of the three Americans will return to Iran to serve more jail time.
Iranian media had speculated that the Americans could be swapped for Iranian prisoners held in US jails but there has been no report of any such arrangement in the United States.