NEW YORK An American woman released last week after being held in Iran with two friends for over a year on suspicion of spying said on Sunday they were innocent hikers who never intended to cross into Iran from Iraq.
"We committed no crime. We are not spies," Sarah Shourd told a news conference.
Shourd, 32, said they "had no knowledge of our proximity to the Iran-Iraq border" when they went hiking near a popular waterfall tourist site, saying any such border "was entirely unmarked and indistinguishable."
Shourd said doctors in Oman who examined her after she was released on September 14 found her to be "physically well," although her family had said she was denied treatment for health problems.
She thanked the government and religious leaders of Iran for her release and called the incident "a huge misunderstanding."
Shourd was detained near the Islamic Republic's border with Iraq in July 2009 along with two male companions, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal.
Under Iran's Islamic law, espionage can be punishable by execution. The case has further complicated relations between Tehran and Washington, which are strained over Iran's nuclear program.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called on the United States to release eight Iranians who he said were being held illegally, noting that his country had made a humanitarian in releasing Shourd.
Ahmadinejad, speaking through a translator in an interview on the ABC program "This Week," called her release "a huge humanitarian gesture."
"So I believe that it would not be misplaced to ask that the U.S. government should take a humanitarian gesture to release the Iranians who were illegally arrested and detained here in the United States," Ahmadinejad said.
He did not indicate when Bauer and Fattal may be released. "We want people to be free and not to suffer. But in the end of the day, there's a law that determines who stays in prison and who does not," he said.
"I would give a recommendation, but the cases have to be examined. They violated the law," Ahmadinejad added.
Bauer's mother told reporters she was "very hopeful" of securing a meeting with Ahmadinejad during his U.S. visit, to lobby for her son's and Fattal's release.
Ahmadinejad, who arrived in New York on Sunday to attend the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting, was one of several foreign leaders to hold separate meetings with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
A U.N. statement said Ban "stressed the importance of respecting fundamental civil and political rights" but the statement did not mention any specific issue in Iran.
The statement also said Ban told Ahmadinejad he hoped Iran would "engage constructively" to resolve its nuclear standoff with the West. Major powers are due to discuss the matter in New York this week but no meeting with Iran has been set.
Ahmadinejad played down the impact of sanctions on Iran over its nuclear activities. Iran says it is developing nuclear energy, while the United States and other countries accuse the Iranians of seeking nuclear weapons.
"We do take sanctions seriously, but taking it seriously is different from believing that they are effective. These are two different issues," added Ahmadinejad.
Veteran Iranian political figure Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has criticized Ahmadinejad for failing to counter the impact of sanctions in the latest sign of division within Iran's ruling elite.
Rafsanjani, head of a powerful clerical body, lost to Ahmadinejad in a 2005 presidential election.
(Reporting by Will Dunham in Washington; additional reporting by Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations and Chris Michaud in New York; editing by Eric Beech)