U.S. hikers to be freed, Iran president says

Laura Rozen

Two American hikers held for more than two years in an Iranian jail will be freed in days after paying bail, Iran's president said Tuesday, describing the release as a "humanitarian gesture."

"They illegally crossed our borders," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told NBC News' Ann Curry in an exclusive interview. "And they were arrested by the border guards. And all countries have laws for illegal border-crossing. They have very tough laws. We have the same laws here in the country." (You can watch a video of Ahmadinejad discussing the hikers' case in an interview on the NBC "Today Show" below.)

Joshua Fattal and Shane Bauer (pictured at a pre-trial hearing at right), both 29, were detained by Iranian authorities in July 2009 along with their friend Sarah Shourd while the three University of California/Berkeley graduates were hiking in Kurdish northern Iraq. Shourd, who had been held in solitary confinement for over a year, was freed last September on humanitarian grounds because of health problems. But after many unexplained procedural delays, Fattal and Bauer were convicted last month in an Iranian court on charges of espionage. Each man was sentenced to eight years prison.

Their families and American officials insist the men are innocent, and have repeatedly implored Iran to free the two on humanitarian grounds.

The State Department said Tuesday that it is trying to get more details on the reports of Fattal's and Bauer's possibly imminent release.

"We are aware of these reports, and we are working through the Swiss Protecting Power to get more details from the Iranian authorities," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement Tuesday.

Ahmadinejad, who is due to join other world leaders at the opening session of the UN General Assembly in New York next week, has previously raised hopes with assurances that the hikers' plight could be coming to an end. However, the two mens' release did not materialize, with some analysts suggesting the the Iranian president was apparently overruled or outmaneuvered by conservative hardliners in Iran's judiciary, and the Americans have remained confined in Tehran's notorious Evin prison.

Shourd was released last fall with the help of the Omani Emir, who arranged payment of the $500,000 bail. The United States, which has numerous sanctions in place against the Iranian regime aimed at thwarting its nuclear program, has not had an embassy in Tehran since 1979, when Islamic revolutionaries seized the U.S. embassy and held 52 embassy workers hostage for more than a year.

Masoud Shafiei, the Iranian defense lawyer for Fattal and Bauer, told the Associated Press Tuesday that bail for the two men had been set at $500,000. "He said the court would free Bauer and Fattal after the money was paid," the AP reported.