Tehran: A senior Iranian prosecutor said on Sunday that authorities will release a jailed American woman on USD 500,000 bail because of health problems, another sudden about-face by Iran in a case that has added to tension with the United States.
The news came during a weekend of start-and-stop announcements about the release of Sarah Shourd, who was detained with two friends, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, along the Iran-Iraq border on July 31, 2009, and accused of spying.
The woman`s Iranian lawyer met with the three Americans in Tehran`s Evin prison on Sunday and said that he is hopeful Shourd will be released in next two or three days.
Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi said the conditions of her bail do not bar her from leaving the country, though her case will still go to trial along with those of the other two Americans, who must remain in custody.
"Based on reports and the approval of the relevant judge about the sickness of Ms Shourd, her detention was converted to USD 500,000 bail, and if the bail is deposited, she can be released," the official IRNA news agency quoted Dowlatabadi as saying.
Shourd`s mother has said she has been denied treatment for serious health problems, including a breast lump and precancerous cervical cells.
Her lawyer, Masoud Shafiei, met with the Americans in the prosecutor`s office at the prison and said he provided a final letter of defence in her case.
"All of the three were fine and I was with them for three hours," Shafiei said. He added that he was hopeful "Shourd will go home within the next two to three days."
He said the Swiss embassy in Tehran is making arrangements for the USD 500,000 bail payment for Shourd. The Swiss embassy represents US interests in Iran because the two countries do not have direct diplomatic relations.
It was not immediately clear whether such a bail payment would violate US trade sanctions or whether a special waiver would be required.
Shourd, who has been held in solitary confinement, was to have been released on Saturday as an act of clemency to mark the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan after the intervention of Iran`s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the judiciary abruptly halted that planned release, indicating such a decision would have to first go through the courts.
Iran has accused the three Americans of illegally crossing the border and spying in a case that has deepened tensions with Washington — which has led the push for tougher sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.
Their families say the Americans were hiking in Iraq`s scenic north and that if they crossed the border, they did so unwittingly.
The prosecutor said the two other Americans would remain in custody. The prosecution`s case against the three is nearly complete and a judge has issued indictments for all three on charges of spying, he said.
"The suspects did not confess but we have enough reasons in hand for their spying charges," Dowlatabadi said.
The prosecutor rejected any link between the decision to grant Shourd bail and the return to Iran in July of nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri. Iran had accused the US of abducting Amiri, while Washington said he was a willing defector who later changed his mind.
In the past, Ahmadinejad has suggested the three Americans could be traded for Iranians claimed to be held by the US.
The judiciary appeared to be using the issue of Shourd`s release to flex its muscles in an internal political tussle with President Ahmadinejad. On Friday, the Foreign Ministry had announced that plans for her release on Saturday were the result of Ahmadinejad`s personal intervention and reflected the "special viewpoint of the Islamic Republic of Iran on the dignity of women."
Hours later, judiciary officials said the release was off — an embarrassing rebuke to Ahmadinejad. On Saturday, Dowlatabadi emphasised that any announcement about the American`s release "would only come through the judiciary system”.
The mixed signals point to one of the main fissures in Iran`s conservative leadership: Ahmadinejad and his allies against conservative rivals in the powerful judiciary overseen by Iran`s supreme leader.
At times, Iran has also sought to exploit the propaganda value of holding the three Americans.
In May, for example, Iran allowed the mothers of the three detainees to visit them, releasing them temporarily from Tehran`s Evin prison for an emotional reunion at a hotel. The elaborate event received extensive coverage on the government`s main English-language broadcast arm.
In the past year, Iranian authorities have allowed bail or converted jail sentences to fines for two other high-profile detainees.
In May, French academic Clotilde Reiss was freed after her 10-year sentence on espionage-related charges was commuted to a fine equivalent to USD 300,000.
Canadian-Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari of Newsweek was freed on USD 300,000 bail in October 2009 after nearly four months detention following the crackdown after the country`s disputed Presidential Election. He was later sentenced in absentia to more than 13 years in prison and 50 lashes.