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Iran may release detained U.S. hikers soon: lawyer

American hikers Shane Bauer (L) and Josh Fattal and their translator attend the first session of their trial in Tehran
American hikers Shane Bauer (L) and Josh Fattal and their translator attend the first session of their trial in Tehran

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran may release U.S. citizens detained on charges of espionage, their lawyer Masoud Shafiee told Reuters on Saturday, a day before a scheduled court session for the two coinciding with the second anniversary of their detention.

Josh Fattal, Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd were arrested by Iranian forces in July 2009 on suspicion of spying after crossing into Iran from Iraq. Shourd was freed on bail in September 2010 and returned to the United States.

Under Iran's Islamic law, espionage can be punished by execution.

"Tomorrow it will be two years since my clients were jailed ... I believe their already two years in detention will serve as their sentence," Shafiee said. "I hope it will be their last court session."

In November, Iran's judiciary announced espionage charges against the three. Their families said they were hiking and had strayed across the border accidentally. Washington says the charges are totally unfounded and they should be released.

The last hearing was scheduled for May 11 but was postponed without any explanation. Iranian authorities had previously called on Shourd to return to Tehran to stand trial alongside Fattal and Bauer.

Asked whether Shourd would appear at the session, Shafiee said the court had not demanded that she should attend. "It is one of the signs. In the previous warrants Shourd was asked to return to Iran for the trials ... but this time there is no such demand," he said.

Bauer and Fattal pleaded not guilty at a closed-door court hearing on February 6 but the lawyer said he had had no recent legal access to his clients.

"So far, no permission has been granted to my request for a private meeting with my clients," Shafiee said.

"Despite asking repeatedly, I have not met them since the last trial," he said. "I hope to have a meeting with them even a few hours before tomorrow's trial."

The United States cut diplomatic ties with Tehran after the Iranian revolution in 1979. The two countries are now embroiled in a row over Iran's nuclear program, which the West suspects is aimed at making bombs. Tehran denies this.

Some Iranian officials and newspapers had suggested that the

Americans may be swapped with jailed Iranians in the United States. But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said there were no talks between the United States and Iran on a prisoner exchange.

Iran said in 2009 it believed 11 Iranians were being held in the United States.

(Writing by Ramin Mostafavi and Parisa Hafezi; Editing by David Stamp)

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