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Muhammad Ali, in letter, seeks release of U.S. hikers held in Iran

Boxing champ Muhammad Ali is seeking the release of two American hikers from Iran by lobbying the country's supreme leader in a way that few American dignitaries can: as a brother in Islam.

Arguably the most prominent U.S. Muslim, Ali made his simple, behind-the-scenes appeal to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in February and released his letter to the Associated Press on Wednesday. Ali's wife said he would be willing to return to the country, which he's visited twice before, to work on the hikers' release if his health allows.

The letter asks Khameini to release Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, who have been held on espionage charges since July 2009, when they were arrested while hiking in northern Iraq near the Iranian border.

A third hiker, Sarah Shourd, was released on bail in September.

"He was hoping his letter would bear some weight in trying to secure the release of these two idealistic young people," his wife, Lonnie Ali, told the AP in a telephone interview from their Arizona home.

The letter was the second one the boxing champ sent to Khamenei asking for the Americans' release, Lonnie Ali said. The first was sent last year just before Shourd was released, but it isn't known whether the letter had any effect. Ali hasn't received responses to either.

"Please show the world the compassion I know you have in your heart," Ali wrote in his second letter, asking Khamenei as a "dear brother" to show the same mercy and compassion for the two men as he did for Shourd.

Lonnie Ali said the letter was delivered via the Iranian consulate in the United Nations.

"Most Americans don't know how warm and welcoming the Iranian people can be," Ali wrote. "One day, I hope I am able to return to Tehran to stand, greet and be among my Iranian brothers and sisters once again. Perhaps that day will come soon."

Lonnie Ali said her husband has visited Iran twice before, including a trip in the early 1990s in which he tried to secure the exchange of prisoners during the Iran-Iraq War.

She said he would be willing to go to Iran to help secure the hikers' release, but it would depend on his health.

"We are deeply grateful to Mr. Ali and the many other people around the world who know that Shane and Josh absolutely do not deserve to be in prison," the families said in a statement.

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