Iran releases American 'spy' hikers after two years in prison

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Two Americans convicted of espionage in Iran and given long prison sentences finally flew out of the country yesterday after prolonged negotiations.

Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal were held for two years after they were arrested in the mountains of Kurdistan and accused of spying and illegal entry after allegedly straying into Iranian territory. They were reported to have left Tehran in a plane after being released from Evin Prison on bail of $500,000 (£320,000) each. They were expected to stop first in Oman and then return to the US.

Negotiations for the release of the two men, both aged 29, were handled by Swiss and Omani diplomats since the US has no diplomatic relations with Tehran. Their Iranian lawyer, Masoud Shafiei, was reported by news agencies as saying "I have finished the job that I had to do as their lawyer."

Their final release was delayed by differences within the Iranian leadership and a difficulty in finding two judges to sign their release papers.

The timing of their release was probably determined by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's departure on Monday to New York to attend the UN General Assembly. He had earlier announced that the hikers would be released only for the Iranian judiciary to say that he did not have the authority to free them. Mr Ahmadinejad has been locked in a power struggle with his mostly clerical opponents in Tehran.

Mr Bauer, Mr Fattal and a third American, Sarah Shourd – friends from their students days at the University of California at Berkeley – were detained in July 2009 when they were hiking at a narrow gorge in the mountains on Iraqi-Iranian border. The area, west of Halabja, is a well-known beauty spot where Kurdish families often picnic beside a fast-flowing mountain stream which comes from Iran a few miles away. The international frontier is particularly confusing in the area and it would not be difficult to stray across it. Ms Shourd was freed on bail last year but Mr Bauer and Mr Fattal were sentenced to eight years in prison last month.

The three Americans have maintained their innocence and denied the espionage charges against them. Mr Bauer is a freelance journalist who had been working for a short period in Baghdad, and Mr Fattal is an environmental activist. Mr Bauer became engaged to Ms Shourd while in prison.

The Iranian state has a long history of imprisoning foreigners and using them as leverage, dating from the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979. Iran appears to have been the guiding hand behind the abduction of foreigners, mainly journalists, in Lebanon in the 1980s. This precipitated the Iran-Contra scandal when the White House supplied Iran with weapons in a bid to free American hostages held in Lebanon.

The US invasion of Iraq initiated another round of hostage taking, reaching a high point in 2007 when Iranian diplomats were seized by US special forces in Arbil. Iranian Revolutionary Guards captured a Royal Navy patrol boat and its crew whom it accused of entering Iranian waters in the Gulf.

Iranian influence has increased in Iraq as the US withdraws its forces, but the Syria government, its main ally in the Arab world, looks decreasingly likely to survive continuing protests.