Release of US woman on bail due within days

Backpackers seen as pawns in power struggles between Ahmadinejad and the Iranian judiciary and between Tehran and Washington.

(FILES) -- An undated photo provided on August 20, 2009 by the Shourd family shows Sarah Shourd, one of three American hikers being held in Iran. Iran has cancelled the planned release of the US hiker, accused of spying and illegally entering the Islamic republic, because of unresolved legal issues, officials said on September 11, 2010 in Tehran. AFP PHOTO/HO == RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE ==
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TEHRAN // A US woman imprisoned in Tehran for 13 months on spying charges will be freed on bail, Iran's judiciary announced yesterday, one day after it halted her planned release in a snub to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian president had hoped to take credit for Sarah Shourd's freedom, analysts said. Tehran's chief prosecutor declared that Ms Shourd would be released on a surety of US$500,000 (Dh1.83 billion) from the capital's Evin prison because she is in poor health.

Ms Shourd, who was detained with two male friends while hiking along the Iran-Iraq border in July 2009, was free to leave the country, Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi said. But he added that "the American spy" would have to appear in court for her trial on espionage charges, while her two friends would remain in custody. The United States said last night it was "hopeful and encouraged" by the indications that Ms Shourd's release was imminent. "But there have been starts and stops in this before and until that actually happens, you know, we're on a wait-and-see-basis," David Axelrod, a White House adviser, said.

The three backpackers are regarded as hapless pawns not only of a power struggle between the Iranian regime's ruling conservatives but of Tehran's long-standing battle with Washington. Ms Shourd's mother, Nora, has said her daughter was being held in solitary confinement despite suffering from a pre-cancerous cervical condition, a lump in her breast and depression. Masoud Shafii, Ms Shourd's lawyer, was hopeful she would leave prison in the next two or three days. He said the Swiss Embassy, which represents US interests in the 30-year absence of diplomatic ties between Tehran and Washington, was making arrangements to pay the bail.

Ms Shourd, 32, was to have been unconditionally released on Saturday in what was described as an act of clemency to mark the end of Ramadan after the personal intervention of Mr Ahmadinejad. Her hopes were dashed at the last minute when Mr Dolatabadi insisted late on Friday that any such decision to release her had to go through the courts. The mixed messages from Iran's fractious regime, which played havoc with the emotions of Ms Shourd and her family, are the result of increasing public in-fighting between Mr Ahmadinejad and his conservative rivals in the judiciary and other power centres.

His opponents have accused the populist and polarising president of monopolising power, riding roughshod over parliament and mismanaging the economy. "Ahmadinejad treats government bodies that he should abide by as a buffet where he just picks and chooses whatever he wants," Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born, Israel-based Iran specialist, said. The president's opponents had used Ms Shourd's case to tell him "you cannot act this way", Mr Javedanfar said.

Mr Dolatabadi criticised Mr Ahmadinejad's government yesterday for intervening in the affair. "Releasing information on judicial cases should not be done by government officials - judicial authorities should handle it," he said. The backpackers were arrested on July 31 last year while hiking in a mountainous region near Iraq's poorly defined Kurdistan border with Iran. The Iranian regime accused Ms Shourd, along with her fiancé, Shane Bauer, 28, and their friend, Josh Fattal, 28, of illegal entry and spying.

If they strayed across the border, it was unintentionally, their families have said, while vehemently denying, along with the Obama administration, the spying charge. Mr Dolatabadi insisted yesterday Ms Shourd's case will still go to trial - supposedly in her absence - along with those of her two friends, who must remain in custody. "The case is very nearly complete and the judge has issued an indictment for the three Americans accused of spying," he told Iran's Fars news agency. "It has been proven that they illegally entered through the Kurdistan border. Also, the equipment and supplies they were carrying are only used for spying."

Espionage can carry the death penalty in Iran, although the Islamic republic has never executed a westerner and such an outcome now is unimaginable. Scott Lucas, an Iran expert at Birmingham University in England, said the judiciary's bail decision for Ms Shourd "points to a compromise between the judiciary and the president". Experts believe Mr Ahmadinejad had wanted to make a gesture before his trip to the UN General Assembly in New York on September 23. He probably calculated that Ms Shourd's release would ease pressure from inevitable protests there demanding the release of the American hikers, said a senior analyst in Tehran, who declined to be named.

Also, Mr Ahmadinejad may have wanted to send a goodwill signal to Washington before possible new talks about Tehran's nuclear programme between Iran and world powers. And he probably hoped to defuse the international uproar over a stoning sentence, now put on hold, for Sakineh Mohammad Ashtiani, an Iranian widow convicted of adultery. One of the main fissures in Iran's conservative leadership pits the president against the judiciary, headed by Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, who has a powerful ally in his brother, Ali, the parliamentary speaker.

"Now Ahmadinejad still gets his gesture before flying to New York while the Larijani brothers block his plans for a grand ceremony to mark Shourd's release," Mr Lucas said. "They did not want him to take the glory and thus the political legitimacy of spearheading Shourd's release." Mr Lucas recalled that it was Ali Larijani who was instrumental in securing the release of 15 British sailors held for 12 days in Iran after supposedly straying into Iranian waters in 2007.

"But it was Ahmadinejad who presided over a choreographed ceremony and gift-giving to the sailors as they were freed," he said. The Iranian president's rivalry with the powerful Larijani brothers goes back a long way. Ali Larijani, Iran's former nuclear negotiator, unsuccessfully challenged Mr Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential elections and views him as a brash upstart with poor revolutionary credentials.

Sadegh Larijani, meanwhile, was appointed head of the judiciary - a post overseen by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - two weeks after the three Americans were detained. Iran at the time was reeling from the crackdown on dissent amid unprecedented protests following Mr Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election weeks earlier. Mr Larijani, concerned about the militarisation of the government, warned at the time that security forces and the Revolutionary Guard allied with the president could face prosecution if they overstepped their bounds.

Ms Shourd's nervous family, meanwhile, are unlikely to let their hopes soar until she is safely reunited with them.