Iran’s envoy to the United Nations has confirmed that a female American held for more than a year will be released.
Iran had earlier announced that one of the three Americans captured by Iran in July 2009 would be released to mark the holidays at the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Bak Sahraei, second counselor of the UN mission confirmed Thursday in an e-mail that Sarah Shourd would be the one set free on Saturday.
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. Iran denies that.
The Culture Ministry sent a text message to reporters telling them 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, when Iran claims they illegally crossed the border from Iraq’s Kurdish region.
“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.
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.
The mother of the detained American woman, 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.
During the American hostage crisis in 1979-1981, Iran first released women and African-Americans as a sign of respect for women and mercy toward minorities.
Shourd; her boyfriend, Shane Bauer, 27; and their friend Josh Fattal, 27, have been held in Iran since July 2009, when they were arrested along the Iraqi border. Iran has accused them of espionage; their families say they were hiking in Iraq’s largely peaceful mountainous northern Kurdish region and that if they crossed the border, it was accidental.
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.”
“We hope and pray that the reports are true and that this signals the end of all three of our children’s long and difficult detention,” the statement said. “Shane, Sarah and Josh are all innocent and we continue to call for their immediate release, so that they can return home together and be reunited with our families.”
Iranian leaders have repeatedly suggested a link between the jailing of the Americans and Iranians they claim are held by the United States.
The Swiss embassy in Tehran has handled consular affairs for the United States for about 30 years, since after 1979 Iranian revolution. Swiss diplomats refused to comment Thursday on any possible release of the three detained Americans but are expected to be involved in any transfer.
Ali Reza Shiravi, the head of Iran’s foreign media office at the Culture Ministry, confirmed that he had sent the message summoning reports to the hotel.
The high-rise Estaghlal hotel near Evin prison is where the three Americans’ mothers were allowed to visit them in May in a highly publicized trip.
Nora Shourd said the U.S.-based families of the hikers had seen the news reports out of Iran but had no idea whether they were true.
“We don’t know anything,” Shourd told The Associated Press. “We’re trying like crazy to see what we can find out. I hope it’s true — that’s all I can say for sure. But I don’t know if it is.”
Nora Shourd had the last contact with any of the three jailed Americans, when Sarah called her on Aug. 2 and the two spoke for three or four minutes.