Iran halts release of female US hiker

TEHRAN (AFP) – Iran has cancelled Saturday's planned release of Sarah Shourd, one of three US hikers accused of spying and illegally entering the country, saying none will be freed until the case is resolved.

"Up until the time that the legal procedure regarding the case of the three accused Americans is over, none of them will be released," Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi said in a statement carried by the ILNA new agency.

Any decision to free the three Americans would be taken by the judiciary, he added, repeating that this would not happen "until the investigation of their case is over."

Dolatabadi had earlier said that, because the judicial process had not been completed in Shourd's case, her release had been "ruled out."

(AFP file) Detained US hiker Sarah Shourd (L) sits with her mother Nora during their first meeting since her arrest.

Several officials had previously indicated that Shourd would be freed on Saturday, which would have coincided with the end of Ramadan and the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the United States.

State news agency IRNA reported President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's office as saying her release had been postponed.

"The freedom of the American citizen which was to happen in a ceremony has been postponed as Saturday was a holiday," it quoted an unnamed presidency source as saying.

Releasing Shourd could have eased tensions between Washington and Tehran, which have heightened in recent months over Iran's controversial nuclear programme of uranium enrichment.

The abrupt decision to halt her release appears to stem from a disagreement between the presidency and the judiciary led by Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani.

Larijani had last month hit out at Ahmadinejad over his remarks regarding a separate legal case, while the judiciary chief's brother and parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani has also regularly criticised the president over his handling of the economy.

Shourd was arrested along with fellow hikers Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal on July 31, 2009 after straying across the border from neighbouring Iraq.

The website gives her age as 32, saying Bauer and Fattal are both 28.

Iran has accused the three of spying and illegal entry, but they insist they entered the country by mistake after getting lost during a trek in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Reports of Shourd's expected release first emerged late on Thursday in a culture ministry text message to news networks inviting them to report on the event on Saturday.

Then on Friday foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast cast doubt on the expected release, telling English-language Press TV that "discussions are still ongoing regarding the details and the date of her release."

Her mother Nora told AFP last month that Shourd was being held in solitary confinement despite suffering from a pre-cancerous cervical condition, a lump in her breast and depression.

But referring to Shourd, Dolatabadi said "one of them being sick does not contradict dealing with her case."

The mothers of the trio had voiced hope that news of one of them being released signalled an end to their battle for freedom.

"We have seen the news reports and are urgently seeking further information," Cindy Hickey, Nora Shourd and Laura Fattal said in a joint statement.

In May, Iran had allowed the mothers to visit, and they later reported that Shourd and Bauer had become engaged while behind bars.

On Thursday, the United States said it was checking the veracity of reports of Shourd's pending release with Switzerland, which has represented American interests in Iran since the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

"These are three innocent children, innocent kids who committed no crime, all three of whom should be released and released immediately by the Iranian government," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Nobel Prize winners and international rights groups have repeatedly urged Iran to release them.

In April 2009, US-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi was freed after being held on espionage charges, but US-Iranian scholar Kian Tajbakhsh, who was arrested in the unrest that followed Ahmadinejad's re-election in June 2009, remains in custody.

Another American, Robert Levinson, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent, went missing more than three years ago from Iran's Kish island. Tehran says it has no information about him.

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