Reporting from Tehran and Istanbul, Turkey —
Iranian authorities are prepared to release on $500,000 bail one of three American hikers held since last year, Tehran's chief prosecutor said Sunday.
However, the trio was formally charged at a morning session with espionage and trespassing into Iran, and the detention of the other two Americans was extended for two months, the hikers' defense attorney told The Times.
"All my clients pleaded not guilty and did not accept the charges," attorney Masoud Shafii said in a telephone interview, adding that the three were in "good spirits."
Prosecutor Abbas Jafari-Dolatabadi told reporters at a briefing that bail had been set at the equivalent of $500,000 for Sarah Shourd, according to various Iranian news agencies. But he also said the "order of arrest for the other two American nationals has been extended."
Shourd, Joshua Fattal and Shane Bauer were arrested more than 13 months ago along the Iran-Iraq border during what relatives of the detainees called an ill-fated and innocent hiking trip in northern Iraq.
Shafii said he was upbeat about Shourd's imminent release and predicted that she would be allowed to leave the country at once, though the prosecutor said she would be expected to show up for any trial.
Her lawyer said he had contacted her family and informed the Swiss Embassy, which represents U.S. interests in Iran in the absence of formal relations between Washington and Tehran, "to procure the $500,000" for her release.
Iranian officials, under the authority of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had days earlier said Shourd would be released Saturday morning. However, in a stark illustration of Iran's political infighting, they backtracked after the powerful judiciary said the investigation of her case had not been completed.
On Sunday, Jafari-Dolatabadi said Ahmadinejad's team had failed to "coordinate with us" regarding Shourd's release.
"When I heard news of Sarah Shourd's freedom from the media, a question occurred to me," he said. "How can she be free without coordination" with the judiciary branch?
Shourd, 32, has reportedly complained of health problems while in prison. Jafari-Dolatabadi said the judiciary had originally planned to try all three defendants at the same time but changed course after being informed of her medical condition by Shafii.
Jafari-Dolatabadi said the case was being handled by Iran's ideologically motivated Revolutionary Court instead of through ordinary legal channels because the hikers' "dossiers were important."
He told reporters that Iran had enough evidence to prove the three were spies and the "Americans have responded too," hinting at possible behind-the-scenes diplomatic communications between Iran and the U.S. over the hikers.
The trio's continued detention has further strained relations between Iran and the U.S., which accuses Tehran of pursuing a nuclear weapons program and undermining peace efforts in the Middle East.
The Obama administration has denied Iranian claims that the three, two of whom had lived in Syria, are spies. Ahmadinejad is scheduled to address the United Nations in New York during the annual meeting of the body's General Assembly this month.
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Daragahi from Istanbul.