Getting free

Bay Area artists and musicians rally to free the hikers detained in Iran

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Shane Bauer (left) and Josh Fattal, both 28, have been detained in an Iranian prison for more than 540 days

rebeccab@sfbg.com

Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal have been held captive in Evin Prison in Tehran for more than 540 days, and their friends and supporters in the Bay Area have been mounting an extraordinary campaign pushing for their release.

On July 31, 2009, Bauer and Fattal were hiking with Sarah Shourd, who is Bauer's fiancée, through green mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan. The three UC Berkeley graduates had traveled from Damascus for a recreational visit. They were wandering nearby Ahmed Awa, a popular tourist destination where hundreds of people had flocked to camp, to visit a waterfall and enjoy the peace and quiet of the mountains.

They say they didn't realize how close they were to Iran, which has no diplomatic ties to the United States.

Shourd told the Guardian she's not sure whether they accidentally traversed the Iranian border, because it was unmarked. "We had no intention of being anywhere near Iran," she said. "And if we were, we're very sorry."

Iranian officials surrounded them, speaking in Farsi, which they couldn't understand. They were arrested on suspicion of spying and taken into custody. Before being taken to prison, one phoned a friend, Shon MeckFessel — who had been traveling with them but opted not to go on the hike because he wasn't feeling well — to alert him that something had gone wrong. That would be the last communication any of them would have with close friends or family members for months.

Shourd was finally released on bail Sept. 14, 2010 on humanitarian grounds after spending 410 days in solitary confinement. She was reunited with family and friends — but Bauer and Fattal have remained in detainment ever since.

Since returning to the United States, Shourd has thrown her energy into advocating for their release — and she's not alone. "Everyone in the family has been working tirelessly for all 18 months," she said, "which is far, far longer than we ever imagined in our worst nightmares."

 

FIGHTING FOR FREEDOM

While Shourd was still in prison, her mother, Nora, gave up her home and job to move in with Bauer's mother, Cindy Hickey, and work for their release full-time. Fattal's older brother, Alex, suspended his graduate studies at Harvard to dedicate himself to the campaign. His mother, Laura Fattal, stopped working to devote herself to the campaign.

"That's just family alone," Shourd noted. "If you start to look to how many people have contributed to our campaign and how many ways, it just blows your mind." Soon after her release, Shourd put out a call for people to hang banners proclaiming the innocence of Bauer and Fattal and calling for their release. In response, nearly 60 banners were unfurled in 25 different countries.

Shourd has made countless media appearances since her release, and even put out an MP3 of a song she composed while in solitary confinement, which can be downloaded as a way to support the Free the Hikers campaign. Their story has drawn the interest of prominent figures. On Jan. 19, Noam Chomsky released a video offering to testify on their behalf if a trial is held, saying Bauer and Fattal "have dedicated themselves to advocating for social and environmental justice in Africa and elsewhere, and they truly embody the spirit of humanitarianism."

Others who have publicly defended the trio include President Barack Obama, who issued a statement in July saying none of the hikers ever worked for the U.S. government, addressing Iranian accusations that they were there to commit espionage. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu have called for their release. A documentary has been produced about their plight, and a second one is in the works.

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