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Iran Halts Release of American Held for a Year

September 10, 2010

By ROBERT F. WORTH
Published: September 10, 2010

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Iran on Friday postponed the release of an American woman who has been detained along with two friends for more than a year, in an abrupt shift that suggested divisions within the Iranian government.

Iranian officials had said that the woman, Sarah E. Shourd, 32, who was arrested with two fellow hikers and accused of spying after straying across the Iranian border in July 2009, would be released Saturday morning. But late on Friday the Iranian state news agency, IRNA, quoted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s deputy for communications, Mohammad Hassan Salehimaram, as saying that the release had been postponed, and promising more details later.

Hours earlier, a high-level prosecutor had announced that the release could not take place because it circumvented judicial rules.

The about-face appeared to be something of an embarrassment for Mr. Ahmadinejad. Earlier on Friday, one of Iran’s semiofficial news agencies had said Mr. Ahmadinejad had personally intervened to secure Ms. Shourd’s release.

The postponement dealt a blow to Ms. Shourd’s family, who had voiced excitement on Thursday about her imminent release. Ms. Shourd is suffering from medical problems and has been kept in solitary confinement in Iran’s Evin Prison, according to her mother, Nora Shourd.

The detention of the three hikers has further strained relations between Iran and the United States at a time of rising tension over Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran has accused the three Americans of spying, but American officials have said they are innocent and called for their release.

Iranian officials first announced Thursday that Ms. Shourd would be released, and even invited reporters to attend the event on Saturday. But late on Friday, Jaffar Abbas Dowlatabadi, the prosecutor of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran, said the release had been canceled because “the judiciary process has not been completed” in her case.

Mr. Ahmadinejad had intervened in Ms. Shourd’s case in part because of “the special viewpoint of the Islamic Republic of Iran on the dignity of women,” according to Ramin Mehmanarast, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, who was quoted on Iran’s Mehr news agency on Friday.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s gesture came after months of global criticism of Iran’s treatment of a female prisoner, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who was sentenced to death by stoning after being convicted of adultery. That sentence has been suspended, and Iranian officials have struggled to reframe the case, saying Ms. Ashtiani was also guilty of murder.

But Mr. Ahmadinejad’s powers are limited in Iran’s political system, and he has clashed repeatedly with conservative rivals in recent months. In an apparent attempt to save face for the president, Iran’s ISNA news agency reported that Saturday was being declared a public holiday, and that Ms. Shourd’s release was being postponed until a more appropriate time.

There has been no word on the fate of the other two hikers arrested with Ms. Shourd, Shane M. Bauer and Joshua F. Fattal, both 28. Iranian officials have suggested that the three Americans could be traded for Iranians being held by the United States.

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