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After a power struggle within Iran's conservative leadership put her freedom in doubt, an American woman arrested more than a year ago along the Iraq border is on the verge of heading home. Her two companions, however, could be on their way to spy trials.
Sarah Shourd could be released in the "next two or three days" — or even sooner — after $500,000 bail is paid, said Masoud Shafiei, the Iranian lawyer for Shourd and the other detained Americans, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had personally promised Shourd's release on Friday as a sign of Islamic compassion at the end of the holy month of Ramadan but was quickly slammed down by the judiciary — which turned around Sunday and set its own ground rules, including the bail amount. Swiss diplomats, who represent U.S. interests in Iran because the two countries do not have direct diplomatic relations, were making arrangements to post bail.
"Based on the judiciary decision, the lady will be released," Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said at a news conference.
But as Iranian authorities paved the way for Shourd's release on health grounds, they also appeared to be moving their espionage accusations into high gear. Tehran's chief prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi said indictments against the three Americans were issued Sunday and the prosecution's case is nearly complete.
That could mean trials for Bauer and Fattal, both 28, and proceedings in absentia for Shourd, 32. Convictions could bring prison sentences of up to 10 years each.
"The suspects did not confess, but we have enough reasons in hand for their spying charges," Dowlatabadi said.
Iran has accused the three of illegally crossing the border and spying in a case that has deepened tensions with Washington — which has led the push for tougher sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program. The detainees' families say they were hiking in Iraq's scenic north when they were detained on July 31, 2009, and that if they crossed the border, they did so unwittingly.
Dowlatabadi claimed the Americans had "equipment and documents and received training." He did not elaborate.
"They had not come to Iraq and Iran for entertainment," Dowlatabadi was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency.
Shafiei, the lawyer for the detained Americans, told The Associated Press that they were fine when he visited them for about three hours Sunday. He said it was the first face-to-face meeting allowed since he was hired by their families to represent them in late 2009.
The three are being held at Tehran's Evin Prison, which also holds hundreds of opposition activists and others arrested in the crackdown after last year's disputed presidential election.
Shourd "was naturally very happy, and even the two male prisoners were glad about Sarah's freedom. But Sarah had expected all three of them to be released," the lawyer later told AP Television News.
Shourd's mother has said her daughter has been denied treatment for serious health problems, including a breast lump and precancerous cervical cells. Nora Shourd, of Oakland, California, could not be reached for comment Sunday.
"We're just keeping an eye on the situation and we have no further comment," said Samantha Topping, a New York publicist working with the families.
Dowlatabadi said the conditions of Shourd's bail do not bar her from leaving the country — a situation similar to that of Canadian-Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari of Newsweek, who was allowed pretrial bail last year, left Iran and was later convicted in absentia.
The provisions of Shourd's bail have not been disclosed, but it's unlikely she would face a demand to return for a possible trial. At the same time, any comments or criticisms she makes could be closely watched by Iranian authorities who still have custody of her two friends.
Dowlatabadi said the bail arrangements are being handled through the Swiss Embassy.
"Based on reports and the approval of the relevant judge about the sickness of Ms. Shourd, her detention was converted to $500,000 bail, and if the bail is deposited, she can be released," IRNA quoted the prosecutor as saying.
The semiofficial ISNA news agency quoted the Swiss ambassador to Tehran, Livia Leu Agosti, as saying she was "very hopeful that she will be released as soon as possible." She refused to give further details, said ISNA.
It was not immediately clear whether such a bail payment would violate U.S. trade sanctions against Iran and whether a special waiver would be required.
"We are working and hoping for the release of all three hikers," U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
In the past, Ahmadinejad has suggested the three Americans could be traded for Iranians claimed to be held by the U.S., raising the possibility they could still be seen as bargaining chips by Tehran.
This program aired on September 12, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.
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