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Jailed hiker's family asks Iran to lower or drop bail
TEHRAN, Iran -- A day after Iran offered a detained American woman a chance for release on $500,000 bail, her family countered with a request Monday to drop or lower the sum because they are struggling to raise the cash.
The appeal -- delivered by Swiss diplomats, who handle U.S. affairs in Iran -- was another potential snag in a process already complicated by political feuds among Iran's leadership and questions over how a payment could be made for Sarah Shourd's freedom without violating international sanctions.
There's been no immediate word from Iranian authorities on the bid by Shourd's family to drop or reduce her bail, said her attorney, Masoud Shafiei. But it comes as powerful voices within Iran challenge the decision to grant bail to the reportedly ailing Shourd, who was detained along the Iraq border in July 2009 with two American friends who are also jailed and face spy charges.
There was a time when no one in Iran dared question the country's judiciary, which is directly under the wing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But now various groups are vying for a bigger slice of power after last year's disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the unrest that followed.
Pressure from the Revolutionary Guard, which backs Ahmadinejad, could push the courts into a corner over Shourd's case. Dropping or lowering the bail could bring even more anger and political skirmishes.
Shortly after judicial officials announced the bail, Shourd's lawyer predicted she could walk free in "two or three days." On Monday, however, he described a complex back and forth between Iranian authorities and her family.
"I am aware the Swiss are making this appeal," Shafiei said. "I remain hopeful. God willing, she will be released."
Shourd's mother says she has serious medical problems, including a breast lump and precancerous cervical cells.
The stage was set for her release last week when Ahmadinejad said he intervened as a gesture of Islamic compassion at the end of the holy month of Ramadan. However, the judiciary quickly humbled the president by saying it was in charge of the case and would set the rules -- in the form of the largest known bail for any high-profile Westerner jailed in the past year.
Iran indicted the three Americans on spy-related charges on Sunday, which could mean trials for the men -- Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, both 28 -- and proceedings in absentia for 32-year-old Shourd if she is freed. The families of the three claim they were innocent hikers in Iraq's scenic Kurdish region and if they did stray across the border into Iran, it was inadvertent.
Beyond the issue of raising bail money is the question of how to deliver it.
U.S. sanctions put blanket restrictions on transactions with Iran's main state bank, Bank Melli, which has been the channel for past bail payments to Iranian courts by foreign detainees. Washington accuses the bank of helping fund Iran's ballistic missile development and its nuclear program, which the U.S. says could eventually lead to atomic weapons. Iran says it only seeks peaceful nuclear reactors for energy.
U.N. sanctions also call on governments to block transactions with Melli and another major Iranian financial institution, Bank Saderat, if there are "reasonable grounds" they could contribute to Iran's nuclear activities.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington on Monday that paying bail would not necessarily violate U.S. sanctions, though the U.S. government would not be involved in making such a payment and would not contribute money for it.
"The United States government does not fund prisoner bail," Crowley said, adding: "We do not believe (the three Americans) are guilty of any crime."
While most financial transactions between Americans and Iran are banned under U.S. sanctions, there are provisions for the Treasury Department to issue licenses for certain transfers.
A Dubai-based researcher on Iranian sanctions, Fadi Salem, said U.S. waivers typically cover goods such as carpets or payments for U.S.-Iranian "informational" collaborations, such as professors co-authoring an article.
"They will probably find some avenue such as a Treasury license or find some other channel to make this payment if it comes down to that," he said.
In the past year, Iranian authorities have allowed bail or converted jail sentences to fines for two other high-profile detainees.
In May, French academic Clotilde Reiss was freed after her 10-year sentence on espionage-related charges was commuted to a fine equivalent to $300,000.
Canadian-Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari of Newsweek was freed on $300,000 bail in October 2009 after nearly four months detention during the height of the postelection crackdowns. He was later sentenced in absentia to more than 13 years in prison and 50 lashes.
Samantha Topping, a spokeswoman for the American detainees' families, declined to answer questions Monday.
Friends and allies of the Americans have been raising funds to help cover the expense of trying to secure their release. Their mothers have incurred significant travel bills, flying to Iran in May to see their children.
Nora Shourd and Cindy Hickey, Bauer's mother, also flew to London in July in an unsuccessful attempt to meet with officials at the Iranian Embassy there.
A plea on the families' "Free the Hikers" website asks donors to help cover travel expenses and costs associated with hiring an attorney in Tehran, hiring Farsi translators and maintaining their website.
Supporters of the detainees have also raised money on the families' behalf. Media Alliance, an Oakland, Calif.-based advocacy center for journalists and social justice activists, has solicited donations of between $100 and $1,000 on its website and also suggests monthly donations to its fund for the Americans.