Two Americans jailed in Iran on charges of espionage and entering the nation illegally were released from Tehran’s prison after more than two years in custody.
A convoy of vehicles, including Swiss and Omani diplomats along with Iranian police, was seen leaving Evin prison Wednesday with Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer inside. The Americans were said to be heading to an Iran airport, but it remained unclear where their initial destination would be.
The two men, both 29, were driven out of the prison compound just minutes after their Iranian attorney, Masoud Shafiei, said he has completed the paperwork for their release.
“I have finished the job that I had to do as their lawyer,” Shafiei said. He obtained signatures of two judges on a bail-for-freedom deal. A $1 million bail — $500,000 for each one — was posted.
The men have been cut off from their families, friends and all contact with the outside world for 782 days. They were arrested along the Iran-Iraq border in July 2009 and sentenced last month to eight years each in prison. A third American arrested with them, Sarah Shourd, was freed last year on bail.
The hikers’ families, who had been glued to the news coverage of the process unfolding in Tehran, said earlier they believed the men would go free on Wednesday, and they were “super excited” at the prospect.
The London-based rights group Amnesty International called the release of the Americans a “long overdue step.”
“Iranian authorities have finally seen sense” and have agreed to release Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International Deputy Director for Middle East and North Africa. “They must now be allowed to leave Iran promptly to be reunited with their families.”
The three Americans — friends from their days at the University of California at Berkeley — have maintained their innocence and denied the espionage charges against them.
Their families and the U.S. government said they were just hiking in northern Iraq’s scenic and relatively peaceful Kurdish region when they may have accidentally strayed over the unmarked border with Iran.
The last direct contact family members had with Bauer and Fattal was in May 2010 when their mothers were permitted a short visit in Tehran.
Since her release last year, Shourd has lived in Oakland, Calif. Bauer, a freelance journalist, grew up in Onamia, Minn., and Fattal, an environmental activist, is from suburban Philadelphia.
Bauer proposed marriage to Shourd while in prison.
It was not clear where the two men will be reunited with their families after their release.
The Americans’ detention was used largely as a bargaining chip by the Iranian regime in its ongoing standoff with the United States government over Iran’s nuclear aspirations.
“The legal process regarding the hikers was never a normal one,” prominent Iranian attorney Muhammad Mustafaei, who has not been involved in the men’s case, told CBS News last week. “They were actually taken as hostages. They were used by the Supreme Leader because of the hostility that exists between Iran and the U.S.”
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in New York this week for a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, was widely seen as intent on securing the hikers’ released to coincide with his time on U.S. soil.
But Ahmadinejad’s own tense relations with the hardline Muslim clerics who actually hold all the power in Iran led to several false-starts for the hikers’ release.