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U.S. Hikers Held In Iran Could Be Released

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AMERICANS JAILED IN IRAN
FILE - In this May 20, 2010 file photo, American hikers Shane Bauer, left, Sarah Shourd, center, and Josh Fattal, sit at the Esteghlal Hotel in Tehran, Iran. Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal are due for what Iranian authorities have said will be a final hearing in their espionage case on Sunday, July 31, 2011. The date, comes two years to the day after they were arrested with Shourd while hiking along the Iraq-Iran border. Sarah Shourd was freed last September. (AP Photo/Press TV, File) | AP File

TEHRAN, Iran — Two Americans jailed in Iran on charges of espionage could be released after a court hearing slated for Sunday, their lawyer said.

Masoud Shafiei said Saturday the fact that the session in the trial of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal would coincide with the second anniversary of their arrest may indicate that they will be freed.

The Muslim world also has a tradition of pardoning prisoners for the holy month of Ramadan, which starts early in the week ahead.

The two men and Bauer's fiancee, Sarah Shourd, were detained on July 31, 2009, and Iran accused them of illegally crossing the border to spy. Shourd was released last year on $500,000 bail and has said she won't return to Iran for trial.

They deny the charges and claim they were only hiking in a scenic, mountainous area in the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, near the Iranian border.

The lawyer said Shourd has not been summoned for Sunday's trial session, and he thinks that's another indication that the case is almost over and his clients will be freed.

Shafiei suggested the court could convict the two but then sentence them to time served.

"They've spent two years of their life in jail in Iran, which will serve as their sentence. And tomorrow will coincide with the second anniversary of their arrest. My clients could be released should the court hearing be held tomorrow as planned," he said.

Shafiei insisted the authorities have no evidence to prove espionage, and he pointed out the area where they were detained has a porous border.

"The espionage charge is irrelevant, and the charge of illegal entry is inconsistent with the facts. There was no clear border line and my clients are not guilty. I've provided a sufficient defense," he said.

The U.S. government has appealed for the two men to be released, insisting that they have done nothing wrong. The two countries have no direct diplomatic relations, so Washington has been relying on an interests section at the Swiss Embassy to follow the case.

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner, speaking to reporters in Washington on Friday, said that two years after their arrest, the Americans' case remains a point of serious concern.

He also expressed uncertainty about whether the hearing would take place as scheduled on Sunday.

"We've seen these kinds of announcements, dates set before, and the trials haven't taken place," Toner said. "We are in regular contact with the family, we are in regular contact with our Swiss protecting power there. And their situation remains a matter of utmost concern for the United States and we hope that it reaches a positive conclusion."

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Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Washington.

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