Iranian leader says he'll seek leniency for hikers

NEW YORK - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told The Associated Press on Tuesday he will request leniency for three American hikers who apparently strayed across Iran's border.

The Iranian leader said the Americans broke the law, and "we're not happy that this happened."

"What I can ask is that the judiciary expedites the process and gives it its full attention, and to basically look at the case with maximum leniency," Ahmadinejad said.

"The judiciary has its own procedures to follow, but I'm hopeful."

He did not elaborate.

He spoke in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. Families of the imprisoned hikers have said they hope Ahmadinejad's visit to New York might yield a breakthrough in the case.

Ahmadinejad also was asked about the case of an Iranian-Canadian journalist, Maziar Bahari, working for Newsweek magazine and imprisoned while covering the social unrest in Iran after the disputed June presidential election. Ahmadinejad did not reply about Bahari, limiting his remarks to the case of the hikers.

The ambassador at Iran's mission at the United Nations, Mohammad Khazee, said later that he hoped the case of Bahari would also be resolved.

Shane Bauer, Joshua Fattal and Sarah Shourd have been held for 52 days since they apparently strayed into Iran while hiking in northern Iraq's Kurdistan region in July.

Their case has become the latest source of friction between the U.S. and Iran.

Bauer's mother, Cindy Hickey, told The Associated Press that she and the other families, who are in daily touch with each other, have not received any information on their children other than that they're being held somewhere in Iran.

She said she hopes Ahmadinejad will announce their release or at least provide some information about them on Wednesday when he speaks at the General Assembly in New York. Earlier Tuesday, Fattal's brother Alex said he and his mother had hoped Ahmadinejad would bring the trio with him to the United States.

"We have really got no indication about any direction that this might go," Hickey said in interview at her rural home near Pine City in eastern Minnesota, about a mile from the Wisconsin border. "Knowing our children and knowing they were on a hiking trip and they weren't doing anything other than camping, we're hoping this will come to a quick end. It's been real difficult not to be able to talk to him and hear his voice."

She declined to comment Tuesday night on Ahmadinejad's statements.

The U.S. government has no diplomatic relations with Iran and has been working with the Swiss government to try to obtain information. State Department spokeswoman Megan Mattson said Tuesday the department had no indication Ahmadinejad was traveling with the three Americans and Ahmadinejad did not mention it in the interview, saying the judicial process still needed to unfold in his country.

U.S. officials and authorities in Iraq's self-ruled Kurdish region say the backpackers crossed the poorly marked border by mistake while visiting a scenic part of Iraq on July 31. Iran's state television has said they were arrested after disregarding border guards' warnings.

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Associated Press writer Patrick Condon in Pine City, Minn., contributed to this report.

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