TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — A top member of Iran's judiciary said Tuesday it is taking unspecified legal action against two opposition leaders held under house arrest without charge since 2011 — a possible tentative step toward meeting their supporters' demands that they be given a fair trial to resolve their status.
The semi-official Fars news agency quoted senior judiciary official Mohammad Javad Larijani as saying he was hopeful that Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi could be freed after the conclusion of the case.
"We hope to see the lifting of house arrest after a final conclusion by judiciary and security officials," Larijani said. He did not provide details.
Mousavi ran against outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2009 election. Reformers disputed Ahmadinejad's victory and there were weeks of demonstrations followed by a crackdown.
In 2011, amid uprisings in the Arab world, the two as well as Mousavi's wife were put under house arrest. Charges were never filed.
Hard-liners blame Mousavi and Karroubi for the 2009 "sedition" and have at times demanded they be prosecuted and executed. But the opposition has also sought a trial for the two in preference to indefinite detention without charge.
"If and when we see any formal reaction by the judiciary ... that is paradoxically good news. It would remove them from the state of a legal limbo," said Suzanne Maloney, a former U.S. State Department official who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
Ahmadinejad fell out of favor with the country's clerical establishment and a moderate-leaning president, Hassan Rouhani, was elected to replace him. Rouhani called for the release of Mousavi and Karroubi during his campaign.
In July, Iran's Supreme Leader called on the two to apologize for claiming vote fraud in the 2009 elections, a statement seen as addressing the demands by some politicians, including conservatives, that they be let go.
In Tuesday's statement, the hard-line Larijani called the two detained men "friends." ''I wish the sedition had never happened. We had cooperation with these two beloved men" before 2009, he said. Mousavi was a prime minister in 1980s and Karroubi was a parliamentary speaker in 1990s.
In Tehran, Hasmid Reza Shokouhi, editor of pro-reform Mardomsalari daily, said the remarks could be a sign that the Iranian leadership is paving the way to let the two free. Granting them freedom now would be less controversial than in the past given the amount of time that has gone by since the 2009 election, he added.
But Maloney, the Brookings researcher, cautioned against reading too deeply into Laijani's comments. He has said similar things in the past.
"We'd want to be hearing from other institutions other than the judiciary if this was going to move forward," Maloney said. "It's a glimmer of hope but it doesn't give us any reason to believe that their status has changed."
Larijani said the case has "judicial and security dimensions," wording that suggests a top security council headed by the president was involved in the decision.
Reformists see the secretary of that body, Adm. Ali Shamkhani, as sympathetic to release. He has criticized those who accused Mousavi and Karroubi of sedition.
Meanwhile the pro-reform Fararu news website reported that Mousavi and his wife Zahra Rahnavard ran into a group of activists on Monday when the two went to home of Rahnavard's mother to visit her. The meeting was an accident but the group was allowed to converse.
Mousavi is allowed rare visits outside his home, usually with an escort. Reportedly, the escort did not stop the meeting with activists, which may indicate a loosening up of official attitudes.
Associated Press writer Adam Schreck in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed reporting.