TEHRAN, Iran – Iran said Thursday it will free Sarah Shourd, one of three Americans jailed for more than 13 months, as an act of clemency to mark the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
The imprisonment of the Americans has deepened tensions between the U.S. and Iran, a relationship already strained over Washington’s suspicions that Tehran is trying to manufacture nuclear weapons – something Iran denies.
Bak Sahraei, the second counselor of Iran’s U.N. mission, sent an e-mail confirming the release of Shourd, following up an earlier text message from the Culture Ministry telling reporters to come to a Tehran hotel on Saturday morning to witness the release.
The site is the same one where the three were allowed the only meeting with their mothers since they were detained in July 2009.
Iran claims they illegally crossed the border from Iraq’s northern Kurdish region and had threatened to put the three on trial for spying. Their families say they were hiking in the largely peaceful region of Iraq and that if they crossed the border, it was accidental.
“Offering congratulations on Eid al-Fitr,” the ministry text message said, referring to the feast that marks the end of Ramadan.
“The release of one of the detained Americans will be Saturday at 9 a.m. at the Estaghlal hotel.”
The gesture could be a calculated move by Iran to soften international criticism of its judiciary. Iran has faced a growing storm of protest over a stoning sentence for a woman convicted of adultery that has been temporarily suspended.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has in the past proposed swapping the three for Iranians he says are jailed in the U.S., raising fears that the Americans are being held as bargaining chips.
There was no word on the fate of the other two Americans, Josh Fattal, 28, and Shane Bauer, 28, whom she got engaged to while they were in prison.
Releasing prisoners and showing clemency is a common practice in the Muslim world during the fasting month of Ramadan. Iran’s official IRNA news agency said Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has already pardoned a group of prisoners for Eid al-Fitr. The report gave no number of the freed inmates and did not say whether they also included the American.
Shourd, 31, had told her mother she has serious medical problems.
Nora Shourd said her daughter told her in a telephone call in August that prison officials have denied her requests for medical treatment. The mother said they talked about her daughter’s medical problems, including a breast lump and precancerous cervical cells, and her solitary confinement in Tehran’s Evin prison.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said U.S. officials are in contact with Swiss diplomats who handle U.S. affairs in Iran.
“We don’t know, frankly, what Iran is contemplating at this point,” Toner said. “If this turns out to be true, this is terrific news. The hikers’ release is long overdue.”
A statement by Samantha Topping, a New York-based spokeswoman for the three mothers, said they are “urgently seeking further information.”
Bauer’s mother, Cindy Hickey, of Pine City, Minn., told the Associated Press that the mothers had hoped for a release during Ramadan.
“I’m hoping that even if one is released, the other two will follow,” Hickey said.