Free at last

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The hikers: Josh Fattal, Sarah Shourd, and Shane Bauer.
courtesy Free the Hikers

An ordeal lasting more than two years for Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal came to an end in Iran today, when the two 29-year-old University of California Berkeley grads were freed at last from Tehran's Evin Prison.

CNN reports that Bauer and Fattal were transported from the Iranian prison to an international airport just before nightfall, accompanied by Swiss and Omani officials. They were bound for Muscat, the Omani capital, where arrangements had been made for them to meet with their families and Sarah Shourd, Bauer's fiancee, who was arrested along with them in July of 2009 while on a hiking trip in Iraqi Kurdistan. Shourd was released in what Iran characterized as a humanitarian gesture last year, after spending 410 days in solitary confinement.

"Today can only be described as the best day of our lives," a statement from the families said in response to the news that they had finally been released. "We have waited for nearly 26 months for this moment and the joy and relief we feel at Shane and Josh's long-awaited freedom knows no bounds. We now all want nothing more than to wrap Shane and Josh in our arms, catch up on two lost years and make a new beginning, for them and for all of us."

Last month, Bauer and Fattal were convicted of spying and illegally entering the country and sentenced to eight years in prison each, despite a lack of evidence and repeated statements by President Barack Obama that they had never worked for the U.S. government.

Yet human rights activists advocating for their release have characterized the Iranian government's decision to continue holding them as a political tactic to begin with, and some observers didn't take the outcome of the trial at face value.

The fact that they stood trial after two years of being detained was interpreted as potentially a positive signal by some supporters advocating for their release.
News of their conviction and harsh eight-year sentences also brought kernels of hope, ironically, for some who speculated that the severe outcome of their trial might figure into a broader plan to grant their pardon, setting the Iranian government up for an opportuinity to take credit on the world stage for a merciful act just as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad headed to the United States for the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

However, unexpected delays and hints that the hikers were caught up amid an internal power struggle in Iran kept friends and supporters in a state of agonizing suspense over the past week. On Sept. 13, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated publicly that Bauer and Fattal could be freed "in a couple of days."
 
But that statement had come to nothing by Sept. 16, when supporters from the Bay Area gathered in San Francisco in hopes that an announcement would be made. The following day, reports surfaced that an Iranian lawyer trying to free them was waiting on the signature of a judge who was on vacation until Sept. 20 before their release could go forward.

Bauer and Fattal were released on $1 million bail, a sum CNN reported was paid by the Omani government.

Bauer, Fattal and Shourd are social-justice advocates, antiwar activists, writers, environmentalists, travelers, and creative thinkers with deep ties to the Bay Area. Shourd and Bauer had been living in Syria when they joined with Fattal, who was visiting, and embarked on the ill-fated hiking trip in Iraqi Kurdistan in July of 2009. Shourd, who lives in Oakland, was teaching English to Iraqi refugees when she was in Syria, as well as practicing some journalism. Fattal, who taught at Aprovecho — an education center in Oregon focused on sustainability and permaculture — had been traveling to India, South Africa, and other places through the International Honors Program to lead workshops on health and sustainable technology before visiting his friends in Syria.

Bauer wrote for publications such as The Nation, Mother Jones, and the Christian Science Monitor, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. A photojournalist who has won multiple awards and had his work published internationally, he's documented stories ranging from tenant conditions in San Francisco SROs to conflict-ridden regions in Africa and the Middle East.

Their imprisonment prompted an international response. Calls for their release were issued by Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, human rights activists, religious leaders, authors, celebrities, and hundreds of supporters who wrote letters, displayed banners, and raised money for efforts pushing for their release. A host of family members, friends, and supporters organized under an effort called Free the Hikers worked steadily to free them, and their long-anticipated reunion with Bauer and Fattal has finally arrived.