Breaking free - Page 3

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

Despite the group's initial contact with the Committee to Protect Journalists as well as Bauer's editors at The Nation and Mother Jones, some were opposed to emphasizing the journalism aspect. "Think back to July 2009 in Iran," Martinez said, referencing the popular uprising known as the Green Revolution that had sent shockwaves through Iran just months earlier. "Our friends were and are journalists involved in social movements and people's movements. I'm pretty sure if you did a Google search with 'Iran, July, 2009, activists,' you'd come up with something like torture, prison. That is why we thought ... let's just say they're hikers."

So they came to be known as "the hikers," and a website was created to go along with the campaign, called Free the Hikers.

"We wanted to make sure we weren't divulging details about them that they weren't divulging to their interrogators," Rosenfeld said. "We wanted to be careful not to piss off the U.S. or the State Department. And, if we seemed too orchestrated, it might feed into Iran's paranoid theories that they were spies. So we had to try to solve for all of these variables at the same time."

It began to dawn on them that they were contending not only with the soured relationship between the U.S. and Iran, but an internal power struggle within Iran that had intensified in the wake of mass internal dissent. "The government that grabbed Shane, Josh, and Sarah was at war with its own people," Martinez reflected. "They were prisoners of the historical moment."

Nor was the trio the first in their circle of friends to stumble into a horrendous situation overseas. Tristan Anderson, of Berkeley, was attending a nonviolent protest of the Israeli occupation in a Palestinian village at the beginning of 2009 when he was hit by a high-velocity teargas projectile fired by Israeli Defense Forces, and sustained serious brain injuries.

"Tristan's like a minor celebrity in Iran," Meckfessel noted. "He's known not only for initially getting shot ... but Tristan's whole case got a lot of sympathetic media in Iran." When his three friends were captured, "the first thought I had was, we have proof that we're all friends with Tristan," he said.

On Feb. 10, 2010, Anderson's parents, Nancy and Mike Anderson, sent a letter to Ahmadinejad. "It pains us greatly, on top of the tragedy we have already suffered, to see Tristan's close friends made to bear the burden of grievances between nations," they wrote.

 

GAME OF DIPLOMACY

The idea to approach the Venezuelan government started when Raymor Ryan, an Irish author who lives in Chiapas, phoned Martinez. "He said, 'The only thing that's going to really affect them is state power — this is a game of diplomacy,'" Martinez recounted. He suggested Venezuela — a country that is not only on friendly terms with Iran, but has connections with social movements. Martinez liked the idea, but first he ran it by another friend, famed academic Immanuel Wallerstein.

In an email, Wallerstein summarized for the Guardian the advice he gave. "The Iranians are using this as part of their struggles with the United States," he wrote. "The least likely way to obtain their release is to allow U.S.-Iranian relations to be the issue, or to allow the virtues of the Iranian regime to be the issue. I suggested that they try to work with various left-of-center governments in Latin America, which have friendly relations with Iran, and see if they will intervene with the Iranian government. I did not single out Venezuela. After that, I was out of the picture."

In October of 2009, Rosenfeld reached out to an attorney he knew through the National Lawyers Guild, Eva Golinger, who's authored seven books, lives in Caracas, and occasionally serves as an adviser to Chavez. She agreed to help.

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