07.30.11

Iran Hikers Almost Free

After two years in prison, the U.S. hikers charged with espionage head to their final trial on Sunday. Ramin Setoodeh talks to their friends and families about their chances of returning.

Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer were taken into custody while vacationing in Iraq two summers ago, after they got lost in the mountains and wandered into Iran. A third hiker, Sarah Shourd, was released last year on $500,000 bail. Even before the verdict was announced, the families of the hikers told Newsweek they would appeal a decision that didn't bring their sons home immediately.

"To our many supporters: we THANK YOU from the bottom of our hearts for your messages of support!" the family wrote on their Twitter account, upon announcement of the verdict. "What we need now more than ever is your support in getting Shane & Josh released. Peaceful communication is MOST supportive to us during this intensely challenging time, especially as it honors the values that Sarah, Shane and Josh hold so dear."

The men have now served 750 days in prison, compared to the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979 which lasted 444 days.


Laura Fattal has written 728 letters to her son Josh, one for each day that he’s been held in an Iranian prison. “Grandma turned 85 seven months ago, but she’s also waiting for you to celebrate,” she wrote to him on June 4, Josh’s 29th birthday. “Just as they did last year, she and Grandpa have sent us a birthday card and gift for you. They’re waiting at the house, unopened, for your return.”

Al Bauer has two years of Christmas presents stored in his closet for his son Shane. Since 2009, he’s only had a single 90-second phone conversation with his son, when Shane called him unexpectedly at work. “I’ve done a lot of crying,” Al says. “I just want to be able to hold him.”

By next week, he might finally be able to do that.

Josh and Shane are the hikers—as in “Free the Hikers!,” the slogan of the campaign run by their friends and families—who have spent two years in a high-security prison for allegedly straying across an unmarked border into Iran while they say they were vacationing in Iraqi Kurdistan. On Sunday morning Iranian time, they are scheduled to have their final hearing in a court. The men are held on suspicion of espionage and illegal entry, charges that both the president and peace experts have tried to debunk over and over again. If cleared, they could be coming home in a few days. If convicted, espionage charges in Iran carry the death penalty.

“A lot of people say ‘I never could have gotten through what you did,’” says Sarah Shourd, the third hiker, who was released on humanitarian grounds and $500,000 bail in September, after 410 days of captivity. “You don't do it for yourself. You do it for your loved ones.” Since she was set free, she’s crisscrossed the world as part of the campaign: attending fairs and lectures, traveling to Europe and back, telling the horrific story about her time in Evin, one of the most dangerous prisons in the world. “It was like a wrecking ball hit our lives,” Sarah said on Friday, at a peace rally calling for the release of the two men. “I can’t believe they are still there.”

The crowd that gathered outside Iranian Mission to the United Nations held signs that said “Time for Compassion,” “Only 2 Calls in 21 Months,” and “23 hours a day,” a reference to the amount of time the guys spend together in a 10-by-14-foot cell. Passersby were handed fliers. Josh’s older brother Alex, who led the event, wore a shirt with a heart on the back that read, “Bring them back.”

In 2009, Sarah was living with her boyfriend Shane in Syria, where they were both volunteering as peace activists. For vacation, they went to a region in Kurdistan that has since been listed in the New York Times as one of the 41 places to see in the world. Josh joined them on the trip, and, Sarah says, at the suggestion of some locals, the three friends set off for a nearby waterfall. On the way back, they say they got lost and were waved over by an armed guard, who pointed to the ground and said, “Iran.”

A lot of people say I never could have gotten through what you did. You don't do it for yourself. You do it for your loved ones.

The fact that they’re not home isn’t just a nightmare for their families, but also speaks to how U.S. relations with Iran have become more strained. This week, the Washington Times ran an editorial titled “Obama’s Hostage Crisis”. The U.S. Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 lasted for 444 days, nearly 300 days less than the time Shane and Josh have served in jail.

“The Iranian regime is beset with so many structural problems of its own, and so many divergent views on what to do with the hikers that it’s been punting, with the young Americans paying the price,” says Abbas Milani, a professor of Iranian studies at Stanford University. “Many in the regime know that holding on to these two young men is not in their interest and they are searching for a face-saving way to release them.”

Barring another postponement, their ordeal may finally be resolved: the trial is set for Sunday, July 31, the first day of Ramadan. “Having it on the first of Ramadan—traditionally a month of peace and forgiveness—might give them that ‘face-saving’ moment they seek,” Milani says.

For the families, that moment can’t come soon enough. “The protracted nature of this is driving everybody crazy,” says Alex, Josh’s older brother. “I can’t wait to have him back here.”

“Do I think every day about the 31st?” asks Cindy Hickey, Shane’s mother, on a recent afternoon at her farmhouse near Pine City, Minnesota. “I do. Every day, I hope this is it, not just for Shane and Josh, but for everybody. I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on that, because we have so many things to do and we have to stay strong to do them. But I pray we’re nearing the end.”