- Associated Press - Saturday, September 17, 2011

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s foreign minister says the courts are willing “in near future” to commute the prison sentences for two jailed Americans convicted for spying.

Ali Akbar Salehi says Iran’s judiciary was ready to cancel the sentences as a gesture of Islamic mercy. But he did not give any clearer indication on when the two men could be released.

Salehi comments at a news conference Saturday come as international efforts intensified to seal a $1 million bail-for-freedom deal for Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal. They were detained along the Iran-Iraq border in July 2009 and each sentenced to eight years in prison.

Mediators from Iraq and Oman have asked Iran to free them and an Omani plane is in Tehran to carry the pair out of Iran if a deal is reached.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — The defense lawyer for two Americans jailed in Iran moved ahead with bail arrangements on Saturday, as international efforts intensified to seal a freedom-for-bail deal for the two men, convicted of spying.

Attorney Masoud Shafiei told The Associated Press he was in court, “following up the case” of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal. Shafiei said he hopes Iran’s judiciary will clear the way for payment of $1 million in exchange for the Americans’ release.

Bauer and Fattal were detained along the Iran-Iraq border in July 2009 with their friend Sarah Shourd. She was released last September with mediation by Oman after $500,000 was paid. They maintain their innocence.

The first word of the bail offer for Bauer and Fattal, who have been in jail more than two years, came earlier this week from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He said the Americans could be freed in a matter of days. But Iran’s powerful judiciary then responded that the bail provisions were still under review.

The mixed signals could reflect the bitter internal political feuds inside Iran between Ahmadinejad and the country’s ruling clerics, who control the courts. Ahmadinejad and his allies are accused of trying to challenge the power of Iran’s Islamic establishment.

Shafiei said two judges have to sign the bail papers before the Americans could be released.

By noon Saturday, the Iranian lawyer said one judge had already signed while the second one was expected to do so in a matter of hours. Once the two signatures were in place, the bail money can be posted, Shafiei added.

Mediators from Iraq and Oman have asked Iran to release the men on humanitarian grounds.

A plane from the Gulf state is in Tehran to carry the pair out of Iran if a bail-for-freedom deal is reached. Swiss officials also are involved as representatives of U.S. interests in Iran, which has no diplomatic ties with America.

The men, both 29, were sentenced last month to three years each for illegal entry into Iran and five years each for spying for the United States. They have denied the charges and appealed the verdicts — which opened the way for the possible deal for $500,000 bail each.

The Americans say they may have mistakenly crossed into Iran when they stepped off a dirt road while hiking near a waterfall in the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. They were detained in July 2009.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday the United States continues to hope the Americans will be released, adding that Washington has received word through a number of sources that the two will be returned to their families.

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, California. Bauer, a freelance journalist, grew up in Onamia, Minnesota and Fattal, an environmental activist, is from suburban Philadelphia.

Bauer proposed marriage to Shroud while in prison.

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