Iranians release sex case German

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A GERMAN businessman who was jailed last year for having sex with an Iranian woman has been released on bail, but must stay in Iran, a German official said yesterday.

Helmut Hofer, 54, was "in good physical and mental health", said Bodo Hombach, the chief of staff of Gerhard Schroder, the German Chancellor, in Tehran. Mr Hombach refused to say where Hofer was staying or to answer other questions about him, saying only that "Mr Hofer will not be going to Germany with us because we respect the laws of Iran".

Hofer was sentenced to death in January 1998 after being arrested for having sex with an unmarried 26-year-old medical student. Iranian law punishes sex between unmarried Muslims with flogging but, if the man is not Muslim, he faces the death penalty. The Justice Ministry ordered a retrial after Hofer insisted he had converted to Islam before having sex with the woman. A second court sentenced him to death in October. But the Supreme Court annulled the death sentence in February and ordered a second retrial before a different judge. Hofer's bail was set at 500 million rials (pounds 105,000). The date for the next trial has not yet been fixed.

Hofer was released on bail on Saturday night and would not be allowed to leave the country until the case was resolved, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency.

In an interview with German ARD television recorded shortly after his release and broadcast yesterday Hofer declared his innocence and expressed relief at the decision. "This has given me my life back again after two years behind bars," he said, adding that he was aware it was not a final ruling.

Hofer's detention has been a sore point between Germany and Iran. His release was expected to help to mend ties, which were strained by an earlier diplomatic incident in 1996 when a German court ruled that Iranian officials had ordered the murder of Iranian Kurdish dissidents at a Berlin restaurant. Soon after word of the release, it was announced that the Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami, had accepted an invitation to visit Germany. "I am confident that a new stage has started in relations between Iran and Germany," President Khatami said. A date had not yet been set.

t President Khatami said yesterday he regretted the assassination on Saturday of the armed forces' deputy joint chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Ali Sayyad Shirazi. Iran's main rebel group, the Mujahideen Khalq, has claimed responsibility for killing the general, who was shot as he drove his son to school.