Breaking free - Page 2

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

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

Yet the stage had already been set by friends of the hiking trio, a small crew of passionate social justice activists based in San Francisco and Oakland. They possessed skills as organizers, but this time the goal was more personal — they wanted nothing more than for their friends to be free.



Based on the 17 alarmed messages on his voicemail, David Martinez knew something terrible had happened involving Bauer and Shourd. An independent filmmaker, Martinez was close to both and had collaborated with Bauer in 2007 to produce a film about Darfur.

Soon after learning that they were being detained in Iran, he found himself swept into a whirlwind, ad-hoc grassroots organizing effort as friends and family of the hikers contacted one another, fired off rapid emails, and organized conference calls to try and determine how to respond.

"We created this working group, this conference group — we wanted everybody's expertise," explained attorney Ben Rosenfeld, who has known Shourd for more than a decade and offered free legal representation to Shourd's mother. "We set out to build a brain trust, essentially, and we did that very, very quickly."

Shourd and Bauer had been living in Damascus, Syria, at a Palestinian camp when they decided to take a short trip to Iraqi Kurdistan. Shourd was teaching English to Iraqi refugees, and Bauer — a photojournalist — was writing articles about the Middle East. Fattal, an environmental educator, was visiting them. They journeyed along with Meckfessel to Kurdistan, a forested region of Iraq known as a safe destination for U.S. citizens. But once they arrived, Meckfessel felt groggy, so he opted to stay behind while the other three went off in search of a waterfall.

"I was on a bus to meet them and got a call from Shane that they were being arrested by Iranian authorities," Meckfessel told the Guardian. After notifying their families, he flew to Istanbul to stay with a friend.

Back in the Bay Area, word of the hikers' plight was starting to make news. "I had producers from morning shows like Good Morning America ringing my doorbell from the beginning," Rosenfeld said.

Martinez was on a conference call with the core group of organizers when Meckfessel contacted him via Skype from Istanbul — and by that point, the national media was hungry for a statement from the elusive fourth hiker. So the group worked with Meckfessel to craft a statement for the press.

The first challenge they faced was this: Should they emphasize that Bauer, Shourd, and Fattal were humanitarian activists, or should they downplay their political leanings by casting them as adventuresome Americans with a love of the outdoors? Both portrayals were true, but the most important audience, as Rosenfeld pointed out, was ultimately their captors.

Meckfessel said he thought highlighting their politics would help their case. "The first minute after I got the phone call [from Bauer] ... I thought that basically our involvement in the region as journalists, as academics, and as educators, and our long public record speaking out for human rights and as critics of US foreign policy in the area ... would get them out," he said.

Meckfessel later created a website,, to emphasize the humanitarian and journalistic work that the three were engaged in. In the summer of 2010, he maxed out two credit cards to go on a 30-city European tour to drum up support overseas.

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