US hiker spies on way home after Iran release

MUSCAT: Two US hikers jailed for spying and illegal entry arrived in Oman on their way home Wednesday after Iran released them on bail, months after handing them hefty jail terms.Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, both 29, were flown into Muscat on an Omani Royal Air Force plane that landed at the private airport of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, an AFP correspondent said.US President Barack Obama hailed the release, telling reporters in New York: “We are thrilled” while their families said in a joint statement it is “the best day of our lives.” The pair was released earlier Wednesday from Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, after more than two years in jail for spying and illegal entry into Iran, after the Gulf sultanate of Oman paid their bail.

Their case poisoned already difficult relations between Tehran and Washington and the release came as President Mahmud Ahmadinejad was in New York for the UN General Assembly.Bauer’s mother and father were in Oman to welcome him, along with his two sisters, Shourd and Fattal’s father, mother and brother.Wearing light-coloured shirts and black trousers, Fattal and Bauer ran down the steps of the plane smiling and shouting happily as they hugged their parents and took photographs with them.“They are healthy, happy and strong,” Fattal’s father told AFP.

The sultan’s envoy to Iran who mediated for their release, Salim al-Ismaili, arrived with them on the same plane. “After all the effort I’ve exerted, I’m going to need a one-year vacation,” he told reporters.A message by the families thanked Sultan Qaboos, his envoy, their Iranian lawyer Masoud Shafii and the Swiss Ambassador to Iran “for working to make today a reality.” “We have waited for nearly 26 months for this moment,” said the statement which was also signed by fellow hiker Sarah Shourd, Bauer’s fiancee, who was released last year.

“The joy and relief we feel at Shane and Josh’s long-awaited freedom knows no bounds. We now all want nothing more than to wrap Shane and Josh in our arms, catch up on two lost years and make a new beginning, for them and for all of us.” Obama called the release “wonderful news” and said: “I could not feel better for their families and those moms who we have been in close contact with, its a wonderful day for them and for us.” A statement by the Omani foreign minister said the Gulf state “hopes this humanitarian initiative will be followed by other positive initiatives that would help achieve rapprochement between both the Americans and the Iranians… to achieve stability in the region.” Oman also thanked Iran “for responding to the efforts exerted by the sultanate’s government under the directions of his majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said… to release” Fattal and Bauer, the Oman News Agency reported.

The pair was released into the custody of the Swiss embassy in Tehran which looks after US interests there as Iran and the United States have no diplomatic ties.They were driven from Evin prison to Tehran’s Mehrabad airport for their flight to freedom.Iran’s official news agency IRNA reported their departure for Mehrabad airport and said that the Swiss ambassador and an Omani delegation had been present when they were released from Evin.Oman, a US Gulf ally which has good relations with Iran, agreed to pay the two men’s bail which was set at five billion rials ($400,000) each.

“Yes, the money for the bail was provided by Oman,” said the pair’s lawyer Masoud Shafii.Oman also paid bail of $500,000 for the release of Shourd, the third hiker released last year on humanitarian and medical grounds. She also made her way home via Muscat.Last week Ahmadinejad announced that Fattal and Bauer would be freed and again said on Tuesday that they would be released, amid concern over the delays in their release.“I did say within the next few days and I still say the same thing. And God willing they will be released very soon,” Ahmadinejad told US television network ABC.

Ahmadinejad told US media last week that the pair would be released imminently.But the judiciary, dominated by ultra-conservatives, said later that no decision had yet been taken and that it was studying a bail application from the pair’s lawyer.However, the release on bail of the two Americans, has already been approved by one judge, and Shafii had been told on Sunday to expect the second judge to return to work on Tuesday.

Bauer and Fattal were arrested along with Shourd near the mountainous border with Iraq on July 31, 2009.On August 21, Bauer and Fattal were each sentenced to eight years in prison by a revolutionary court in Tehran on charges of espionage and illegal entry.They have appealed against the ruling.All three have consistently maintained that they innocently strayed into Iran while hiking in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region. – Dawn