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A Happy Ending for Imprisoned American Hikers

Anna Kuta

A Happy Ending for Imprisoned American Hikers

Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, two 29-year-old American men falsely imprisoned as spies in Iran since 2009, were released Wednesday to the state of Oman and reunited with their families after Oman’s government paid their $1 million bail.

“Today can only be described as the best day of our lives,” the men’s families said in a statement. “We have waited for nearly 26 months for this moment.”

U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement Wednesday afternoon: “The tireless advocacy of their families over these two years has won my admiration, and is now coming to an end with Josh and Shane back in their arms. All Americans join their families and friends in celebrating their long-awaited return home.” Obama expressed gratitude to Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, the Swiss government and “all our partners and allies around the world who have worked steadfastly over the past two years to secure the release of Shane and Josh.”

Fattal said Wednesday night: “We are so happy we are free, and so relieved we are free. Our deepest gratitude goes toward His Majesty Sultan Qaboos of Oman for obtaining our release. We are sincerely grateful to the government of Oman for hosting us and our families.”

It is a happy ending to a long and arduous story that began on July 31, 2009. Fattal, an environmental and global health advocate, Bauer, a freelance journalist, and their friend Sarah Shourd, an English teacher to Iraqi refugees, embarked on a five-day hiking vacation in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. It is not known whether the three accidentally strayed across the border into Iran, or whether Iranian forces entered Iraq to arrest them, but all three were taken into custody in Evin Prison in Tehran and charged with illegal entry and espionage.

All were denied access to a lawyer. Each was allowed to telephone their families only once, and it wasn’t until May of 2010 that their mothers were allowed to visit them a single time for two days. Shourd, assigned to solitary confinement, was only allowed to see Bauer and Fattal, who shared a cell, for two 30-minute periods each day.

Bauer proposed to Shourd while they were in prison. He wove a ring for her from red and white string from his T-shirt.

After spending 410 days in solitary confinement, Shourd was released on September 14, 2010.

Shortly after her release, she released a public statement, in which she pleaded for the freedom of her friends and said: “We committed no crime and we are not spies. We in no way intended any harm to the Iranian government or its people and believe a huge misunderstanding led to our arrest and prolonged detention. Shane, Josh and I had no knowledge of our proximity to the Iran-Iraq border when we went hiking behind the Ahmed Awa waterfall, a popular tourist site frequented by local families in Iraqi Kurdistan. If we were indeed near the Iraq-Iran border, that border was entirely unmarked and indistinguishable.”

Supporters created a Facebook group called “Free the Hikers,” which grew to more than 30,000 members, along with a Twitter account, a blog and a website. The Facebook group urged people to send letters to the hikers and sign a petition for their release to deliver to the United Nations.

The Facebook group’s description reads: “[The men’s] protracted detention without due process is illegal according to international and Iranian law and must end immediately. It is widely acknowledged they are being held for political purposes that have nothing to do with the facts of their case. Their detention is arbitrary and inhumane and we call on the Iranian authorities to release them without further delay. … [They] share a love of travel that has taken them to many countries. That is why they went to Kurdistan, not because they wanted to enter Iran.”

In February and July of 2011, Bauer and Fattal appeared before an Iranian court in two behind-closed-doors trials, represented by attorney Masoud Shafiei. Shafiei told CNN he saw no evidence of a crime and that anyone could have unwittingly crossed the unmarked border into Iran in the area where the hikers were accused of trespassing.

Fattal and Bauer defended their innocence; however, the Tehran prosecutor’s office had “compelling evidence” that they were operating for U.S. intelligence agencies, an Iran TV station reported.  In August 2011, they were both found guilty of espionage and sentenced to eight years in prison — three years for illegal entry into Iran and five years for spying for the United States. Iranian law states that conviction on espionage can carry up to a 10-year prison sentence, but terms can often be reduced upon appeal.

On August 28, Shafiei submitted an appeal to their sentence. On September 13, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced to NBC that the men would be released in two days in what he called a “humanitarian gesture.” A bail of $500,000 for each man was set, the same amount as Shourd’s bail in 2010 (it has not been disclosed who put up Shourd’s bail).

Their release was delayed, but on September 20 Ahmadinejad reaffirmed his plan to free them: “When we said we will release them, we will release them,” he insisted.

After Oman posted the $1 million for the men’s bail, their sentences were immediately commuted. Bauer and Fattal left Iran’s Evin Prison in a diplomatic convoy September 21 and were flown to Oman’s capital city of Muscat, where their families awaited.

“Two years in prison is too long,” Bauer said shortly after their release. “And we sincerely hope for the freedom for other political prisoners and other unjustly imprisoned people in America and Iran.”

Jeremy Roth, a friend of Fattal, said he predicted Fattal would use his story and experiences to bring awareness to others wrongfully imprisoned around the world.

“Josh, Shane and Sarah are certainly not the only people in the world that are unjustly detained for things that they didn’t do,” Roth said.

Anna Kuta is the news editor at Crosswalk.com. She is a 2011 graduate of the University of Richmond, where she majored in journalism and political science. When she isn't writing or editing, she enjoys keeping up with politics, spending time with her church's youth group and rooting for the Spiders. She can be reached at [email protected].

Publication date: September 23, 2011