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.

Comments

delusional.

Posted by meatlock on Oct. 10, 2011 @ 7:51 am

Now that will be rich....3 sellouts wined and dined by their leader Clinton in Washington......picture of the 3 ***Hikers*** arm in arm with none other than Clinton. A picture is worth a thousand words. It will go over real big in the Middle East. Did Bauer plant a wet one on her???Did Shourd try to explain away her "I am ashamed of USA ditty?" Did FARTall express his thanks for not blowing his Jewishness??? Now their hinies are so owned, 1.5 million buys much these days.

Posted by Guest Full OF It on Oct. 16, 2011 @ 9:42 am
Posted by meatsack on Oct. 16, 2011 @ 12:27 pm

They are morons.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 10, 2011 @ 9:17 am

What I find irritating is these morons still insist they did nothing wrong.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 10, 2011 @ 10:14 am

They made some bad choices, they are confused about how the world works, and they made assumptions about the power of good intentions, but what did they do "wrong?"

Posted by meatlock on Oct. 10, 2011 @ 11:38 am

I'll tell you what they did wrong - they made a bad decision and never acknowledged responsibility, which was hiking and camping overnight near the Iranian border. They did not research the area nor did they even look at a map to realize how close they were. None of them have real jobs and have instead spent their years protesting the USA, then whined that the USA wasn't doing enough to support them.

Not once have any of these 3 dingdongs admitted their own stupidity, instead continuing to play up their status as "victims". I hope the 2 years in prison was a reality check.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 18, 2011 @ 8:24 am

They are intelligent, compassionate people who are dedicated to illuminating the stories of other cultures around the world. When the US gov is more likely to bomb first and ask questions later, the type of courage displayed by "the hikers" is impressive.

Posted by ianmack on Oct. 11, 2011 @ 11:03 am

The 3 fools: this Shourd who did nothing to help the twin Iranian girls who pleaded with her to help them regarding their mother who has been in USA pison for 3 years.Shourd the bimbo did and said nothing!So much for conflict resoloution .Bauer who fancies himself as a journalist, seeking truth,is himself deceptive and shuns the press. He thanked the Zionist media for their coverage, yet he refuses to own up to the real story here.Answers no questions, refuses to own the fact that they were STUPID Goofs who were where they had no right to be! Refuses to admit HIS goverment had much to do with their freedom. FARTALL and his family hid the fact that is a JEW, Yeah like Iran did not know?? It was hidden from Americans as we know why. Shourd who was busy in Syria telling how she is ashamed of America, The Ass, Trying to promote her femmie ways to women who are quite happy where they are. You know what??, you were not loved in Syria, you dumb twitt. You were set up there....Good luck trying to get back into the spotlight as you will need to answer some probing questions, Your Zionist media were oh so careful not to ask...such as, what were you doing Miles, hours beyond the waterfall??? Why were you so free to come and go in Syria, when you were also in Israel many times? Just try and return to Syria you 3 goofy looking twits.. Get a freeking job the 3 of you. PAY BACK the money you bilked from the dumbed down morons on the FTH web site who were stupid enough to fall for the story. Then pay back the 1.5 million the USA tax payers forked over to get your flat putrid asses out of Iran The masses wait for the three of you to rear your ugly heads in the near future, you have no story, your time is up, Just go away.

Posted by Guest Full OF It on Oct. 12, 2011 @ 12:13 pm

Oh yes another thing....Kudos the the twit brother of the jew. Alex FARTall ... Nice side stepping on that radio interview you did,during your long winded blubbering the only caller allowed to ask a question, asked you about how it was going with paying back the bail by the 3 twitts, You replied it was merkey, and that the only thing that matters is that they are free........Hmmmmmm.In other words, the UGLY 3 are never planning of repaying one red cent.... You know what ?? The 3 OWE big time. SHOUT OUT TO THE 3 . THANKS FOR THE HELP TO BRING 2 Countries CLOSER TO WAR! EVEN your lawyer stated you were not abused......DID YOU EVEN PAY HIM???

Posted by Guest Full OF It on Oct. 12, 2011 @ 12:26 pm
wow

you're really angry.

Posted by marke on Oct. 12, 2011 @ 1:08 pm

Disgusted is more the word... The 3 turds went on ***vacation*** and hiked MILES beyond a tourist site, miles away to the very border of Iran. They get caught, then cry like girls. They get released, and return to their USA ,they say they are not going to take any questions, then they go on a thank-you tour....Creeps, Shourd that ugly ape like creature and her femmie so called boyfriend , and that jew in hiding, Fattal ,have done much to help USA to instigate more hate toward Iran, just what USA wanted from them. Job well done! Now the 3 freaks are on a thank ya tour.They are paying their due to the USA for their freedom... They are cosying up to Clinton ,as is demanded. Syria must be so pleased with you. Guess you will just pretend you were forced to meet with Clinton??? What happened to **they hate America?????? Their bed mate is the very head of the **System*** they claim to be aganst. The freaks sold out... Enjoy the tour you asswhipes.Not like you will ever be seen as anything more than sellouts . SHOUT OUT ...Hey Shourd did ya forget about the TWINS?

Posted by Guest Full OF It on Oct. 14, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

I always find it amazing to read the comments section. It makes me wonder what people are doing in real time...like why one would have so much time to spew such negative thoughts. The internet is an amazing way for people to anonymously state the ugly truths about themselves without suffering the consequences of censorship. After reading some of these comments, especially the ones filled with anger towards people who are perfect strangers...I somehow begin to understand why some countries do practice censorship. It seems governments are partly trying to cover up the stupidity of humanity so as so save face. Perhaps this is also partly why so many other cultures view Americans so poorly. It irks me to realize that people will post anything to validate anger and resentment within themselves, and consider what they say to be educated responses.
So you keep up with current affairs, good for you. If you want the world to side with your opinions, or understand your criticisms, perhaps find a way convey your thoughts more intelligently. No one wants to believe angry ranters. But then that's what this place is all about. Go America.
full or MORONS, and people without jobs. Accept it. Do you even have a job? Or do you get off from work just to post such hate on the internet?

Posted by Guest J. Yang on Oct. 12, 2011 @ 2:55 pm

for anyone who wants to criticize, yeah, i know my grammar and syntax isn't perfect. get over it.

Posted by Guest J. Yang on Oct. 12, 2011 @ 2:56 pm

I am appalled at the people who are leaving negative comments on this story. Where is your humanity? I was deeply affected by this story because I was very compassionate for the Sea of Green movement in Iran and very concerned for their treatment in Evins prison, a place known for torture of the worst kind.

Whatever their decisions to go hiking to find a waterfall, should not be a reason to berate them. Why can't this world be peaceful and we inhabit in freely among one another upholding each other and living towards serving fellow man.

As they endured their plight I found small amounts of time to blog, tweet or facebook about them, but that is nothing compared to the work that went on behind the scenes and I also want to acknowledge Mrs. Clinton for her diligence.

I make a simple request to generate peace in your thoughts, so that your words create the reality of peace on Earth, and practice random acts of kindness.

Be well, and be happy for their survival, and their friends and families and their own nightmare to be over with.

May true healing begin, and please be a part of that...don't add to it, uplift them in good will, deeds and thoughts.

That's the least you can do after reading this article. There is no need for anything less.

Posted by Heather Dalberg on Oct. 15, 2011 @ 2:04 pm

If you are so concerned about world peace and everyone loving and caring for each other, why not take up the case of an Iraninan prisoner langushing in USA prison? Why not look into the case of this Iranian woman ,Shahrzad Mir-Qolikhan who is in USA prison for something they pinned on her X husband? Sarah Shourd went back on a promise to help this woman's twin teen girls upon her return to USA .Shourd who had the press as her platform,after meeting with the girls in Iran, said and did nothing about this womans plight . So Heather Take up the cause Shourd promptly forgot about. You want to spread peace and light,why not start working for this woman's freedom??You want the world to pay hommage to 3 Jewish american twits who were caught on the border of Iran, who caused much trouble, time and money to get them back to their USA.They are back in USA no worse for wear, Now you want to guide the world to pay hommage to them, to not ask any questions, to not demand the full accounting as to why they were so intent on hiking miles PAST a waterfall up to the very border of Iran? Now the so called *activists*are seen holding court with none other than Clinton and as many connected cronies as they can in Washington.They are known by the company they keep. Kind of hard for the world to see them as anything more than sellouts . Washington can use them now as they OWE, and they willingly help to further spread anti Iran babble. Mission acomplished.This is not the FreeThe Hikers web site. Do not expect anyone to toe the line and play by the rules of posting fluff. You have no filter where the public can post freely. The masses outside of the FTH are not buying it. So do no act surprised to see just now many posts all over the internet are so disgusted with the fools who now want to be seen as heroes.

Posted by Guest Full OF It on Oct. 16, 2011 @ 3:20 am

Hey Heather, what are you smoking?

Posted by Guest on Oct. 18, 2011 @ 8:26 am

I am appalled at the people who are leaving negative comments on this story. Where is your humanity? I was deeply affected by this story because I was very compassionate for the Sea of Green movement in Iran and very concerned for their treatment in Evins prison, a place known for torture of the worst kind.

Whatever their decisions to go hiking to find a waterfall, should not be a reason to berate them. Why can't this world be peaceful and we inhabit in freely among one another upholding each other and living towards serving fellow man.

As they endured their plight I found small amounts of time to blog, tweet or facebook about them, but that is nothing compared to the work that went on behind the scenes and I also want to acknowledge Mrs. Clinton for her diligence.

I make a simple request to generate peace in your thoughts, so that your words create the reality of peace on Earth, and practice random acts of kindness.

Be well, and be happy for their survival, and their friends and families and their own nightmare to be over with.

May true healing begin, and please be a part of that...don't add to it, uplift them in good will, deeds and thoughts.

That's the least you can do after reading this article. There is no need for anything less.

Posted by Heather Dalberg on Oct. 15, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

I am appalled at the people who are leaving negative comments on this story. Where is your humanity? I was deeply affected by this story because I was very compassionate for the Sea of Green movement in Iran and very concerned for their treatment in Evins prison, a place known for torture of the worst kind.

Whatever their decisions to go hiking to find a waterfall, should not be a reason to berate them. Why can't this world be peaceful and we inhabit in freely among one another upholding each other and living towards serving fellow man.

As they endured their plight I found small amounts of time to blog, tweet or facebook about them, but that is nothing compared to the work that went on behind the scenes and I also want to acknowledge Mrs. Clinton for her diligence.

I make a simple request to generate peace in your thoughts, so that your words create the reality of peace on Earth, and practice random acts of kindness.

Be well, and be happy for their survival, and their friends and families and their own nightmare to be over with.

May true healing begin, and please be a part of that...don't add to it, uplift them in good will, deeds and thoughts.

That's the least you can do after reading this article. There is no need for anything less.

Posted by Heather Dalberg on Oct. 15, 2011 @ 2:07 pm
Posted by Patrick Monk RN on Oct. 15, 2011 @ 2:41 pm

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