Iran's hardline judiciary has denied that the release of two long-imprisoned American hikers is a done deal. The announcement contradicts what Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told the U.S. press earlier in the week, indicating that the two men would be exiting prison soon.
"The two Americans are going to stay in prison for a bit longer," reported Iran state television citing the judiciary statement, according to Reuters. "Reports of their imminent release are wrong."
On Tuesday, Ahmadinejad told NBC's Today Show that Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, both 29, would be released in a couple days, after Iranian authorities processed their bail payments.
But Ahmadinejad has previously raised hopes of the hikers' release only to be checked by hardline conservatives in Iran's parliament and the judiciary.
Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal and their friend Sarah Shourd were detained by Iranian officials while hiking in Kurdish northern Iraq in July 2009. Shourd, suffering medical problems, was released last September on humanitarian grounds after spending a year in solitary confinement in Tehran's Evin Prison. Fattal and Bauer, after numerous procedural delays, were convicted in a brief trial last month of espionage and sentenced to eight years in prison.
Their families insist on their innocence; they and American officials have repeatedly implored Iranian officials to release the men on humanitarian grounds.
Analysts described the judiciary's statement Wednesday as another reflection of deep and longstanding rifts within the Iranian regime.
"Ahmadinejad's announcement could not be made without getting a green light from [Iranian Supreme] leader [Ayatollah Khamenei]," Iranian analyst Saeed Monfared told Reuters. "However, the judiciary's move reminded the president of his limitations."
"Khamenei is a very clever politician ... who avoids empowering others too much," Monfared continued. "The two will be freed but not at the time announced by Ahmadinejad."