Hitch over bail for US hikers held in Iran

/ Source: NBC News and news services

A bail application for two U.S. men sentenced to eight years in prison in Iran for alleged espionage was in limbo Saturday, after it was signed by one judge, but a second judge failed to appear as expected, a lawyer told NBC News.

Shane Bauer's and Josh Fattal's lawyer said that he has not been able to put through the final arrangements for their bail due to the missing signature.

The lawyer said that he needed a second judge to sign the bail papers, NBC News reported.

It was unclear when or if the second judge would arrive at court.

Iran's foreign minister said Saturday that the courts are willing in "the near future" to commute the prison sentences for two Americans convicted of spying. The Americans' lawyer, meanwhile, was in court trying to arrange a $1 million bail-for-freedom deal.

Iran has sent mixed messages about the fate of the two men this week, with the country's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saying they would be released in a "couple of days" .

However on Wednesday, Iran's powerful judiciary clouded the case by saying it was still reviewing the bail provisions in a potentially embarrassing rejection of Ahmadinejad's remarks.

It then emerged that the Gulf state of Oman had sent a private plane to Tehran that could be used to transport the two men.

Strayed over borderBauer and Fattal, both 29, were detained along the Iran-Iraq border in July 2009 along with friend Sarah Shourd. They insist they were hikers who accidentally strayed over the border.

Shourd was released in September 2010 after payment of $500,000 bail.

Speaking earlier this week, defense attorney Masoud Shafiei, told The Associated Press he was moving ahead with the bail arrangements with Swiss Embassy officials, who represent U.S. interests in Iran because there are no diplomatic relations between the two countries. There were no details given on the source of the money.

"I have informed both the hikers' families and the Swiss embassy, which represents the U.S. interests and as soon as the bail is prepared, we will deposit and God willing, they will be released," he said.

Iraq President Jalal Talibani helped negotiate the Americans' possible release when he was in Iran last week, according to Iraq's embassy in Iran, which also told NBC News it got involved at the request of the Americans' families. Talibani met with Ahmadinejad during his visit.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told The Associated Press Friday that his country's leaders have urged Iran to release the Americans on humanitarian grounds.

"Recent statements by the Iranian president give us reason to be optimistic," Zebari said in a telephone interview. "Everybody is now waiting for the next Iranian move to put an end to this issue."

Bauer and Fattal were sentenced last month to three years each for illegal entry into Iran and five years each for spying for the United States. They have denied the charges and appealed the verdicts. Shourd's case remains open.

Shourd is living in Oakland, California; Bauer, a freelance journalist, grew up in Onamia, Minnesota; and Fattal, an environmental activist, is from suburban Philadelphia. Bauer proposed marriage to Shroud while in prison.

The last direct contact family members had with Bauer and Fattal was in May 2010 when their mothers were permitted a short visit in Tehran.

The possible release of the two Americans would remove one point of tension between Iran and the United States, but suspicions still exist on both sides and no thaw is in sight.

Washington and European allies worry Iran is using its civilian nuclear program as cover to develop atomic weapons and have urged for even stronger sanctions to pressure Tehran. Iran denies any efforts to make nuclear weapons.

Iran, meanwhile, is deeply concerned about the U.S. military on its borders in Iraq and Afghanistan, and sharply denounces U.S. influence in the Middle East.

Fattal's and Bauer's case closely parallels that of freelance journalist Roxana Saberi, an Iranian-American who convicted of spying before being released in May 2009.

Saberi was sentenced to eight years in prison, but an appeals court reduced that to a two-year suspended sentence and let her return to the U.S.

At the time, a spokesman for the Iranian judiciary said the court ordered the reduction as a gesture of "Islamic mercy" because Saberi had cooperated with authorities and expressed regret.

In May 2009, a French academic, Clotilde Reiss, also was freed after her 10-year sentence on espionage-related charges was commuted.

Last year, Iran freed an Iranian-American businessman, Reza Taghavi, who was held for 29 months for alleged links to a bombing in the southern city of Shiraz, which killed 14 people. Taghavi denied any role in the attack.