New delay to release of jailed US hikers

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A bail-for-freedom deal for two Americans jailed as spies in Iran hit a snag yesterday when it transpired that a judge whose signature is needed on the bail papers was on holiday, the prisoners' lawyer said, dashing hopes for their immediate release.

The attorney, Masoud Shafiei, said he could not complete the paperwork on the $1m bail deal because a second judge who must sign the documents is on holiday until Tuesday. One judge signed the papers on Saturday.

"I have no choice but to wait until Tuesday," Mr Shafiei said.

Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, both 29, were jailed for more than two years in a case that has deepened mistrust between Iran and the US.

They were detained along the Iran-Iraq border in July 2009 with their friend Sarah Shourd. She was released last September with mediation by the Gulf nation of Oman after $500,000 was paid.

The men were convicted of spying for the US and illegally entering Iran, and were each sentenced last month to eight years in prison. They denied the charges and appealed the verdicts, opening the way for the possible deal to free them in exchange for $500,000 bail each.

They say they were just hiking in Iraq's scenic north and may have mistakenly crossed an unmarked border with Iran.

Iran's Foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, said on Saturday that the courts are willing to commute the Americans' sentences in the "near future" as a gesture of Islamic mercy, but did not say when the pair could be released.

However, Mohammad-Javad Larijani, the head of Iran's Human Rights Council and a brother of the country's head of the powerful judiciary, said the men's crime "was not limited to illegal trespassing".

The mixed signals could reflect the bitter feuds inside Iran between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the country's ruling clerics, who control the courts. Ahmadinejad and his allies are accused of trying to challenge the power of Iran's Islamic establishment.