A Venezuelan diplomat said Thursday that President Hugo Chavez played a behind-the-scenes role in efforts to secure the freedom of two Americans who were released from prison by Iran this week.
Deputy Foreign Minister Temir Porras said Venezuela's government was approached for help last year by friends and supporters of the two men, Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer.
Porras said Chavez, who is a strong critic of Washington yet expresses friendship for the U.S. people, believed the Americans' account that they were simply hiking when they were detained in 2009 along the Iran-Iraq border and accused of spying.
He said Chavez made his plea on the Americans' behalf to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, first during a visit to Tehran in October and later in telephone conversations early this year.
"He made a request through the president for Iranian institutions to carry out a benevolent review of these young men's case and ... make a humanitarian decision so they could return to their families," Porras told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Chavez has had close relations with Ahmadinejad, and the two have regularly teamed up to criticize the U.S. government and defend Iran's nuclear energy program.
Porras said Sarah Shourd, a third American hiker who was detained but was released a year ago, was among those seeking Venezuela's assistance, as was actor Sean Penn, who has a friendly relationship with Chavez.
American linguist and activist Noam Chomsky also signed a letter asking for Chavez's support in calling for the Americans' release, Porras said.
The two Americans were released Wednesday under a $1 million bail-for-freedom deal.
Iran's Foreign Ministry said the pair's release was a gesture of Islamic mercy and a response to calls for their freedom by leaders such as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Oman's ruler and Chavez.
Porras said Chavez felt it best to keep his requests private. "It was kept absolutely secret in the first place because our top interest was that the arrangement be successful," the diplomat said.
Eva Golinger, a Venezuelan-American lawyer and editor of the English edition of state newspaper Correo del Orinoco, said some of her friends who are close with the hikers contacted her soon after the three were detained to see if Venezuela could help.
Golinger, a close Chavez ally, said she took up the matter with the Foreign Ministry and eventually with the president.
"He saw the humanitarian side of this and saw that in the end it seems as though this was a very unfortunate misunderstanding," Golinger said.