Iran’s president intervened in planned release of American held for more than a year

Friday, September 10, 2010

Iran’s president intervened in American’s release

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s president intervened to secure the release of Sarah Shourd, one of three Americans jailed for more than 13 months, in part because of her gender, a news agency reported Friday.

Iranian officials have announced that on Saturday they will free Shourd, although they have said nothing about the fate of her two colleagues — Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal.

The three Americans were arrested along the Iran-Iraq border in July 2009, and Iran has accused them of illegally crossing the border and spying. Their families say they were hiking in Iraq’s scenic north and that if they crossed the border, they did so unwittingly.

Iran’s Mehr news agency quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast on Friday as saying that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad intervened to secure Shourd’s release in part because of the “special viewpoint of the Islamic Republic of Iran on the dignity of women.”

Mehmanparast said freeing Shourd was an act of clemency for Eid al-Fitr, the feast that marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Iran’s Culture Ministry also sent reporters a text message telling them to come on Saturday morning to a palace used by Iran’s presidency in north Tehran to witness Shourd’s release. The ceremony was previously planned for a hotel near the prison where the three are being held.

The 31-year-old Shourd has been held in solitary confinement, and her mother says she’s been denied treatment for serious health problems.

Nora Shourd has said her daughter told her in a telephone call in August that prison officials have denied her requests for medical treatment. The mother said they talked about her daughter’s medical problems, including a breast lump and precancerous cervical cells.

Shourd’s release could be a calculated move by Iran to soften international criticism of its judiciary. Iran has faced a growing storm of protest over a stoning sentence for a woman convicted of adultery that has been temporarily suspended.

There was no word on the fate Bauer, 28, or his friend and cellmate Fattal, 28.

Shourd and Bauer, who had been dating before being captured, got engaged while in prison.

For Bauer’s mother, Cindy Hickey, Shourd’s release isn’t exactly what she was looking for, but it does offer some hope.

“Of course I want Shane home. I’d like them all released,” Hickey said. “We expected all three to be released, but one release is a positive move and hopefully the other two will follow.”

The imprisonment of the Americans has deepened tensions between the U.S. and Iran, a relationship already strained over Washington’s suspicions that Tehran is trying to manufacture nuclear weapons — something Iran denies.

Iranian leaders have repeatedly suggested a link between their jailing and that of a number of Iranians by the United States whose release Tehran demands.

Following the news of Shourd’s planned release, the State Department has said U.S. officials are in contact with Swiss diplomats who handle Washington’s affairs in Iran. The Swiss Embassy in Tehran has handled consular affairs for the U.S. for about 30 years, since after the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Normal protocol would be to turn a freed American over to Swiss diplomats to be taken to the embassy.

A Swiss Foreign Ministry spokesman, Adrian Sollberger, said Friday that Switzerland has been working for more than a year to secure the Americans’ release, but declined to discuss the plans to free Shourd because “talks are currently under way.”

There are direct commercial flights to Geneva a few times a week. While flights to Dubai, such as the one taken by the Americans’ mothers when they visited their children earlier this year, are much more frequent, they are probably all booked because of the holidays.

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