How a small group of Bay Area activists helped free their friends from Iranian prison — a Guardian exclusive
Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's foreign minister, told her he thought Chavez would be open to helping. "The foreign minister went to Tehran, and they told me they were going to broach the subject," Golinger said. "When they came back, they told me unfortunately, it wasn't a topic that was received favorably by the Iranians."
Rosenfeld and Martinez were crazed, but they had another idea. Perhaps Chavez would be more responsive to appeals from lefty luminaries. Thanks to behind-the-scenes arrangements made by campaign organizers working every connection they could muster, a letter dated Feb. 26, 2010 was sent to Chavez on behalf of Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, and Harry Belafonte.
"All three of the hikers are dedicated to improving living conditions for poor and oppressed people throughout the world, and to fostering a better understanding among their fellow citizens of the U.S.'s hegemonic role in global politics and economic privation," they wrote.
Soon after, Golinger had a chance to speak with Chavez directly, when she was invited to join him on a trip to Uruguay to attend the presidential inauguration. "He said, 'do you think they're spies?' I said, look, I don't think they're spies. I think they were gringos in the wrong place at the wrong time," she recounted. "Chavez said, yeah, no problem. I'll help."
Soon after, the campaign recruited anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan to write to Chavez, too. But the months rolled by without word of a trial date, let alone a release. Rosenfeld thought up a new way to reach Chavez — by encouraging actor Sean Penn to speak with him.
Penn enjoyed a good relationship with the Venezuelan president and had been regularly traveling to the region to aid in earthquake relief efforts in Haiti, which Venezuela was deeply involved in. Rosenfeld asked Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney of the San Francisco Public Defender's Office and a friend of Penn's, to mention it to him.
Within months, Penn discussed the hikers' case with Chavez, according to Golinger. Then, in September of 2010, Shourd was finally released. Bay Area friends described it as a moment of sheer joy, but also bittersweet, because Bauer and Fattal remained behind bars. Miller invited friends and organizers over to her place in Oakland to join her in the surreal experience of watching their friend deliver a speech on television.
Meckfessel was in Rome as part of his "Free Our Friends" tour through Europe. "I got a text message from somebody that she had been released, and I burst into tears of relief," he said. "Then, just as I was preparing to do my presentation in Rome, I got a call — and it was Sarah. I just shouted and cried in front of this big group of Romans, and everyone was applauding."
Upon her return, Shourd wasted no time throwing herself into the campaign. "I just have so much admiration and respect for Sarah," Miller said. "She went from coming out of prison, and needing time to heal from that, to becoming a full-force, 24/7 international diplomacy worker."
Shourd, Bauer, and Fattal were unavailable for an interview for this article, but their families emailed a statement. "As Josh and Shane said when they got home, many of their friends put their own lives on hold to fight for their freedom," they wrote. "We are grateful to the many people who worked in many different ways to help Shane and Josh. Every single effort mattered and made a difference."