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World News

Bailed U.S.-Iranian academic leaves Iran

TEHRAN (Reuters) - A U.S.-Iranian academic, freed on bail last month after more than three months in detention over spying accusations, flew out of Iran overnight and her case may not come to trial, one of her lawyers said on Monday.

Haleh Esfandiari, 67, was detained on May 8 on a visit to see her elderly mother and released on bail of 3 billion rials (about 160,000 pounds) on August 21.

A judiciary office official said she would forfeit bail if she did not return for any trial, if one was ordered. But the lawyer, one of a group defending Esfandiari, said it was likely the case would not reach that stage due to lack of evidence.

“After a long and difficult ordeal, I am elated to be on my way back to my home and my family. These last eight months, that included 105 days in solitary confinement in Evin Prison, have not been easy,” the Web site for the educational foundation she worked for quoted her.

“I am sure everyone will understand my need, now, for a period of quiet and privacy before I resume my normal activities,” Esfandiari said on the Web site for the U.S. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Her detention and the case of three other dual nationals -- two of them still detained and another free on bail -- have stoked tensions with Iran’s old foe, the United States.

Iran has accused Esfandiari of involvement in what it says is a U.S.-led plot to topple its clerical establishment in a “soft revolution”. Washington dismissed the allegation.

“She (Esfandiari) took her passport last night and left Tehran,” lawyer Abdol-Fattah Soltani told Reuters. He said she would probably return if a trial was ordered but said it was not clear if any trial would go ahead.

“There is no evidence to prove the accusations against her, and there is a high possibility that the case will not go further than this preliminary stage,” he said.

Analysts have seen the detention of Esfandiari and the other U.S.-Iranians as part of a broader crackdown on dissent when Tehran is under pressure over its nuclear programme, which Washington sees as a bid to build bombs despite Iran’s denials.

“FREE TO LEAVE”

Some have also linked Tehran’s actions to the detention by U.S. forces in January of five Iranians, accused of backing Iraqi militants. Iran denies the charges and says they are diplomats. Tehran denies any link to the dual nationals’ cases.

Esfandiari flew to Vienna, Austria to meet with family members. She will then travel to her home in the U.S., her foundation said.

Iranian Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi, who leads the Centre for the Defenders of Human Rights, had said when Esfandiari was freed on bail that she was allowed to leave Iran.

Parnaz Azima, another dual national earlier freed on bail, has been unable to leave because the authorities kept her passport, rights groups say.

The official in the judiciary spokesman’s office said a court official had agreed to a request to lift a travel ban and other Iranian bodies were told Esfandiari “is free to leave”.

The two U.S.-Iranians still detained are Kian Tajbakhsh, a consultant with the Soros Institute, and Ali Shakeri from a centre that seeks to promote peace.

Last month, Iranian television aired “confessions” by Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh, which the Foreign Ministry said had revealed a U.S.-backed plot to overthrow Iran’s clerical rulers.

The United States denounced the broadcast as illegitimate and coerced, and urged Tehran to release the detainees.

Additional reporting by Tehran bureau

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