Breaking free

How a small group of Bay Area activists helped free their friends from Iranian prison — a Guardian exclusive

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Josh Fattal, Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd, and Alex Fattal at the Venezuelan consulate in New York

rebeccab@sfbg.com

An ordeal that began with a hiking trip on July 31, 2009 in Northern Iraq came to a close Sept. 21 when Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal were released from Tehran's Evin Prison. They'd languished in an 8-by-13-foot cell for 781 days while their friends and supporters waged a creative, behind-the-scenes campaign to free them.

Bauer and Fattal were ferried out in a convoy with Swiss and Omani officials and flown to Oman, where news cameras captured their joyful reunion with loved ones. Waiting on the tarmac with their family members was Sarah Shourd, Bauer's fiancée, who'd been arrested with them and was released last September after spending 410 days in solitary confinement. It was the first time since their arrest that "the hikers" — as the trio came to be labeled in the campaign calling for their release — were together outside prison walls, free at last.

Watching their reunion from Seattle, their friend Shon Meckfessel — who went to Northern Iraq with them but hadn't felt up to hiking that day — was overjoyed. "It's like I've collapsed from relief," he told us by phone. "I just feel like I've been asphyxiated for the last two years, and suddenly I remember what air smells like."

In the Bay Area, friends who'd pulled together to work toward their release breathed a huge, collective sigh of relief. "It was just a crazy, amazing adrenaline rush of happiness," said Jennifer Miller, who befriended Shourd years earlier while doing human rights work focused on violence against women in Juarez.

Bauer and Fattal had stood trial only weeks earlier in an Iranian court, on charges of espionage and illegally crossing an unmarked border between Iraq and Iran. They were found guilty and sentenced to eight years each in prison. Their release coincided with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to the United States for the United Nations General Assembly conference.

As Bauer, Shourd, and Fattal remained isolated at the mercy of guards they could barely communicate with, their family and supporters kept up a steady drumbeat calling for their release. They recruited actors, intellectuals, and foreign diplomats to urge the Iranian government — which has not had diplomatic ties with the U.S. Since 1979 — to let the Americans go. Once Bauer and Fattal were free and wandering around New York City, they'd morphed into minor celebrities — strangers approached them in the streets to wish them well.

In the end, nobody can say just what persuaded the Iranian government to release Bauer and Fattal. "Sarah was talking with diplomats in all kinds of countries. The thing is, none of us really knows what the calculus was," said Liam O'Donoghue, a friend who helped out with the campaign.

The campaign was multi-faceted, with friends and family coordinating parallel efforts from various locales. While Bauer and Fattal's group of friends in the Bay Area are quick to note that their work reflected just one slice of the overall push for the young men's freedom, the grassroots organizing effort they created clearly had some effect in the end.

"If Shane, Sarah, and Josh were just three random people who didn't have this group of friends who were so proficient at organizing, I think they would have still been in jail," O'Donoghue mused.

Shortly after Bauer and Fattal were freed, Iran's foreign ministry issued a statement acknowledging the involvement of the Sultan of Oman, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, and — more surprisingly, given his adversarial relationship with the U.S. — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who enjoys a close relationship with Ahmadinejad.

Once reports surfaced emphasizing Chavez's involvement, the news broke that actor Sean Penn had played a role, too — by flying to Venezuela to encourage Chavez to approach Ahmadinejad about the case.

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