Sarah Shourd clemency offer bittersweet for American mothers

Sarah Shourd clemency: Iranian officials have announced that on Saturday they will release one of the Americans but said nothing about the fate of Americans Shane Bauer or Josh Fattal.

By , Associated Press

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    In this May 20 photo, American hikers Shane Bauer (l.), Sarah Shourd (c.), and Josh Fattal, sit at the Esteghlal Hotel in Tehran, Iran. Iran announced Thursday that one of the three Americans jailed for more than a year will be released Saturday to mark the end of Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
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Three American mothers who have pleaded with Iranian authorities for more than a year to free their sons and daughter from a Tehran prison finally received a piece of the news they have been longing for.

Iranian officials have announced that on Saturday they will release one of the Americans, Sarah Shourd, although they said nothing about the fate of Shane Bauer or his cellmate and friend, Josh Fattal.

For Bauer's mother, Cindy Hickey, the news isn't exactly what she was looking for, but it does offer some hope.

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"Of course I want Shane home. I'd like them all released," Hickey told The Associated Press in an interview at her home near Pine City, Minnesota. "We expected all three to be released, but one release is a positive move and hopefully the other two will follow."

Sarah Shourd, Bauer and Fattal have been held for the last 13 months after Iranian officials said they crossed into that country while hiking near the Iraq-Iran border. Iranian officials said freeing Shourd was an act of clemency to mark the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan — an established practice in the Muslim world. Hickey said the families knew that and had hoped for such a release.

Shourd and Bauer, who had been dating before being captured, later became engaged while in prison.

During her interview Thursday, Hickey, wearing a brown "Free the Hikers" shirt, showed little emotion.

"That's how I am," Hickey said. "I've learned in the last year not to get too high because I can't afford the crash if things don't come true."

Shourd's mother, Nora Shourd, had been staying with Hickey in Pine City since January. But Hickey said she was home in Oakland, California, when word broke of her daughter's pending release. Neither Shourd nor Fattal's mother, Laura Fattal, responded to phone messages left by the AP. Shourd's publicist said in an e-mail that she was not giving interviews.

Hickey said that as of Thursday afternoon, the families did not have official confirmation of Sarah Shourd's release. She said the families were holding off on making travel plans until they had more solid information.

Shourd, Bauer and Fattal were detained by Iranian soldiers on July 31, 2009, and have been held ever since in Tehran's Evin Prison. The case has deepened tensions between the U.S. and Iran, a relationship already strained over Washington's suspicions that Tehran is trying to manufacture nuclear weapons — something Iran denies.

Bak Sahraei, the second counselor of Iran's U.N. mission sent an e-mail confirming the release of Shourd, 31, following up an earlier text message from the Culture Ministry telling reporters to come to a Tehran hotel on Saturday morning to witness the release. There was no word on the status of Bauer, 28, or Fattal, 28.

The site is the same one where the three were allowed the only meeting with their mothers, in May 2010.

Iran claims the three illegally crossed the border from Iraq's northern Kurdish region and had threatened to put them on trial for spying. Their families say they were hiking in the largely peaceful region of Iraq and that if they crossed the border, it was accidental.

Iran's new gesture could be a calculated move to soften international criticism of its judiciary. Iran has faced a growing storm of protest over a stoning sentence for a woman convicted of adultery that has been temporarily suspended. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has in the past proposed swapping the three for Iranians he says are jailed in the U.S., raising fears that the Americans are being held as bargaining chips.

Releasing prisoners and showing clemency is a common practice in the Muslim world during the fasting month of Ramadan. Iran's official IRNA news agency said Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has already pardoned a group of prisoners for Eid al-Fitr, the feast that marks the end of Ramadan. The report gave no number of the freed inmates and did not say whether they included the American.

Nora Shourd previously said her daughter told her in a phone call in August that prison officials have denied her requests for medical treatment. The mother said they talked about her daughter's medical problems, including a breast lump and precancerous cervical cells, and her solitary confinement in Tehran's Evin prison.

During the American hostage crisis in 1979-1981, Iran first released women and blacks as a sign of respect for women and mercy toward minorities.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said U.S. officials are in contact with Swiss diplomats who handle U.S. affairs in Iran. Swiss diplomats refused to comment Thursday.

"We don't know, frankly, what Iran is contemplating at this point," Toner said. "If this turns out to be true, this is terrific news. The hikers' release is long overdue."

The Swiss Embassy in Tehran has handled consular affairs for the U.S. for about 30 years, since after the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Normal protocol would be to turn a freed American over to Swiss diplomats to be taken to the embassy.

There are direct commercial flights to Geneva a few times a week. While flights to Dubai, such as the one taken by the Americans' mothers when they visited their children, are much more frequent, they are probably all booked because of the holidays.

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