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Sarah Shourd sits at the Esteghlal Hotel in Tehran, Iran. Iran announced Thursday that Shourd will be released Saturday to mark the end of Islamic holy month of Ramadan. (AP Photo/Press TV, File)

Sarah Shourd, one of three UC Berkeley graduates imprisoned in Iran for more than a year, will be set free tonight, Iranian officials announced Thursday.

Iran's Culture Ministry, contacting reporters by text message, invited them to witness the release at the same hotel where the Americans' parents were allowed to visit them in May during a highly publicized trip.

Shourd, 31, reported finding a lump in her breast last month and was found to have precancerous cervical cells, her mother said. Shourd said she had been kept in solitary confinement for all but an hour each day and first reported health problems several months ago.

She was arrested after hiking near the Iran-Iraq border in July 2009 with Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, both 28. She and Bauer became engaged while in prison. Iranian officials have repeatedly suggested the three were U.S. spies, which the U.S. State Department denied.

Shourd's mother, Nora Shourd, had been living in Pine City, Minn. for several months with Bauer's family but spent the past few days with a family member in Berkeley, a neighbor said.

Nora Shourd, leaving that Berkeley home Thursday after hearing news of her daughter's impending release, remained almost silent, only saying, "I'm happy."


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Since the arrest, the hikers' closest friends and family have oscillated between speaking freely with the media and being more reticent. Several officials and people close to the families have said that there is some concern about what impact U.S. media coverage of the situation could have on Iran's decisions.

The State Department could not confirm reports that Iran intends to release Shourd.

"Hopefully we will see not one but all three of them released," said spokeswoman Nicole Thompson, adding that the United States has for months called for the release of Shourd and her fellow hikers.

Holiday chosen

Ali Reza Shiravi, the head of the foreign media office at the Iranian ministry, confirmed he had sent the message summoning reporters to the hotel.

"Offering congratulations on Eid al-Fitr," the message said, referring to the holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. "The release of one of the detained Americans will be at Saturday, 9 a.m. at the Estaghlal hotel," which would be at 9:30 p.m. PDT.

In Islam, the Eid al-Fitr holiday is a time when God rewards people for their dedication to changing themselves and purging their sins, said Hatem Bazian, a Middle Eastern studies lecturer at UC Berkeley.

"In general, it is believed, one who fasts during Ramadan and observes the requirements, God will save them from the punishment of hellfire," Bazian said. "If you dedicate yourself to changing yourself, the end result is divine clemency."

Governments throughout the history of Islam have taken the symbolic day as a chance to show mercy and goodwill by pardoning prisoners, Bazian said.

That Sarah Shourd is the only woman of the three imprisoned Americans, and the first freed, is in keeping with Islamic values as well, Bazian said.

"I'm delighted to see Sarah will be released. We look forward to hearing about the two other prisoners," Bazian said. "Hopefully they will be released and their families would receive good news in the near future."

Health concerns

In a brief early August phone call, Sarah Shourd told her mother she had discovered a lump in her breast and that she had precancerous cervical cells.

Nora Shourd said she had asked the United Nations special rapporteur on torture to intervene with Iranian authorities to end her daughter's solitary confinement.

"Sarah told me she is still being held alone in her cell and had not had any more medical tests," the mother said.

A woman with a breast lump at Sarah Shourd's age has a reasonable chance of finding it to be benign, but it's important that she get more medical tests as soon as possible, said Lisa Bailey, who heads the Carol Ann Read Breast Health Center in Oakland.

"Breast cancers in younger women are not always aggressive, but they tend to be more aggressive than in women that are older," Bailey said. "You don't panic, medically, but you don't want to waste a lot of time, and a month has already gone by. You want to get tests as soon as possible."

The average breast cancer tumor doubles in size about every 100 days, Bailey said, but some move more slowly or quickly than others.

As for the precancerous cells, Bailey said, "It's not uncommon for young women to have cells that look atypical: we don't know exactly what they saw in Sarah, but sometimes they're at risk of cancer, a person needs to have surgery and so forth. Sometimes it just may be inflammation: It may be she's not eating well and so forth."

Nora Shourd was the last family member to talk with any of the three jailed Americans, when Sarah called her Aug. 2 and the two spoke for three or four minutes.

Hope for others

The hikers' mothers sent out a joint statement Thursday morning, saying, "We have seen the news reports and are urgently seeking further information. We hope and pray that the reports are true and that this signals the end of all three of our children's long and difficult detention. Shane, Sarah and Josh are all innocent and we continue to call for their immediate release, so that they can return home together and be reunited with our families."

The hikers' detention has become entangled in the confrontation between the United States and Iran. Iranian leaders have repeatedly suggested a link between their jailing and that of a number of Iranians held by the United States whose release Tehran demands.

The Americans' families say the three were hiking a path widely advertised by that region of Iraq as a tourist attraction.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.