Iran paves way for U.S. hikers' release

A photo released by Iran's state-run Press TV shows U.S. hikers Shane Bauer, left and Josh Fattal during the first session of their trial at the Tehran Revolutionary Court Feb. 6, 2011. AFP/Getty Images

Updated at 10:51 a.m. Eastern.

Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says two American hikers who have been jailed in the country on charges of espionage for two years will be freed this week, and a lawyer for the young men confirms to CBS News that their bail has been set at $500,000 each.

In an interview with NBC, Ahmadinejad said the bail offer amounted to a "humanitarian gesture."

Iranian officials in Tehran confirm to CBS News that it is Ahmadinejad's intention to have Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, both 29, freed in the coming 48 hours, but the news that bail had been set by Iran's powerful judiciary was possibly even greater cause for optimism than the president's remarks alone.

A spokesperson for the Fattal and Bauer families tells CBS News they have heard the news, "and we're hopeful."

The two American men were arrested more than two years ago while hiking along the Iraq-Iran border, and were sentenced to eight years in prison in August for espionage and illegally entering Iran.

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CBS News' Seyed Bathaei, reporting from the Iranian capital, points out the importance of taking into account ongoing friction between Ahmadinejad and the Muslim clerics who actually rule Iran.

Virtually everything Ahmadinejad - or any Iranian president - does must pass through the Islamic Republic's cadre of religious leaders, who often take a harder line toward the U.S.

However, the Justice Ministry's official setting of bail for the two men was a sign that Ahmadinejad may be able to make good on his promise.

Massoud Shafiei, the lawyer representing the hikers in Tehran, tells Bathaei he received a phone call from the Ministry of Justice saying bail had been set at $500,000 each.

Shafiei said he has contacted the Swiss Embassy, which handles America's diplomatic affairs in Tehran, and the hikers' families with the information. According to Shafiei, once the money has been received the court will begin the process to free Fattal and Bauer. Payment of the bail must be arranged through a third party because of U.S. sanctions against Iran.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. was encouraged by the developments and remained hopeful for the hikers' quick release.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said earlier that U.S. officials were in contact with Swiss envoys to "get more details from Iranian authorities.

In an interview Tuesday morning with a Washington Post reporter in Tehran, Ahmadinejad said the two American men would be granted a "unilateral pardon".

"I am helping to arrange for their release in a couple of days so they will be able to return home," he told the Post's reporter in Tehran. "This is of course going to be a unilateral humanitarian gesture."

Ahmadinejad is expected to travel to New York for a meeting next week of the United Nations General Assembly, which he will address on Sept. 22, and he would likely relish the opportunity to bring the Americans home with him.

The two men were detained in July 2009 along with a third American, Sarah Shourd, who was released in September 2010 on $500,000 bail and returned to the United States. Shourd's case is officially still open in Iran, but she has campaigned vigorously for her friends' release since returning to the U.S.

  • Tucker Reals

    Tucker Reals is the CBSNews.com foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.

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