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Laura Fattal hugs her son Josh at the Esteghel hotel in Tehran, Iran. It was their first meeting since Josh and two other American hikers were imprisoned nine months earlier.
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Laura Fattal hugs her son Josh at the Esteghel hotel in Tehran, Iran. It was their first meeting since Josh and two other American hikers were imprisoned nine months earlier.

Give us back our children

Feature It is more than a year since three Americans were seized at gunpoint while trekking along the Iran-Iraq border. Accused of spying, they have languished in Tehran's Evin prison ever since. Clint McLean talks to their mothers who have campaigned ceaselessly for their release.

It is more than a year since three Americans were seized at gunpoint while trekking along the Iran-Iraq border. Accused of spying, they have languished in Tehran's Evin prison ever since. Clint McLean talks to their mothers who have campaigned ceaselessly for their release. Cindy Hickey put down the phone on July 31, 2009, in a state of shock, her heart racing. Her son Shane Bauer, a journalist, and his girlfriend of six years, Sarah Shourd, a teacher, had been snatched in Iran and had disappeared. Nobody knew who was holding them, why they had been taken or where they were being kept. The US embassy in Baghdad had not been able to contact Sarah's mother, Nora Shourd, so she was one of the first people Hickey rang. Shourd was leaving her bank in Oakland, California, when the news was broken to her. She had just transferred some money to Shane so he could buy Sarah a dress for her birthday.

Laura Fattal, whose son Josh was with the young couple, found out when she checked her voicemail. "This is the US embassy in Baghdad, please call toll free…" Josh had flown out to visit Shane and Sarah in Damascus where they had been living for 10 months. The three friends, who met at university, had teamed up with a fourth, Shon Meckfessel, to spend a week hiking in the beautiful mountainous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Several days into the trip Shon was taken ill and stayed behind as the other three set off to visit the waterfall at Ahmed Awa and trek into the rugged terrain beyond. Feeling better, he called Shane on his mobile and agreed to meet the three of them back at the falls. But at 1.33pm on July 31, Shane rang him. "Call the American embassy, they are taking us in." The line then went dead. Panicked, Shon went to the local police who contacted the US embassy. He was flown to the Green Zone in Baghdad and questioned through the night. Back in the United States, the state department put the three families in touch with each other.

At first it was thought "the hikers", as they became known, had been kidnapped and were being held prisoner, possibly for ransom by a group that would harm them or kill them. "As the days passed," says Shourd, "we learnt that they were being held by the government of Iran, but we didn't know why or where." Eventually, Iran said the three Americans had illegally crossed into their country and were being held on suspicion of spying.

More than a year later, as this magazine goes to press, the three are still languishing in cells in Tehran's infamous Evin prison, pawns in a political game between Iran and the United States. No one seriously believes that the three UC Berkeley graduates are CIA spies, simply adventurous activists sensitive to the needs of the underprivileged: Sarah, 32, had recently spent time working with the indigenous people in Mexican border towns bringing to attention a series of murders of women; Shane, 27, has reported on humanitarian issues for the American news magazine The Nation, Al Jazeera and the political magazine Mother Jones; and Josh, 27, a vocal environmentalist, had just finished teaching a health and community degree course.

The shock of their detention bound their three mothers closely together. Shourd describes an instant "fierce and visceral response" to the situation, knowing immediately, "I need to go there, I need to get Sarah out". One of their first collective acts was to release a statement: "It is now 12 days since our children were detained in Iran… As loving parents, nothing causes us more heartache than not knowing how our children are, and not being able to talk to them and learn when we will hold them in our arms again… We believe that when the Iranian authorities speak to our children, they will realise that Shane, Sarah and Josh had no intention of entering Iran and will allow them to leave."

In the absence of a US diplomatic presence in Iran, the three mothers embarked on an articulate and sustained campaign to win their children's freedom, making regular appearances on television, radio in the press and on the internet, presenting the facts in measured tones, albeit pausing occasionally to regain their composure as tears flowed. Family and friends provided support, although holidays and birthdays were particularly difficult. Josh's friends sent his mother two dozen roses on Mother's Day.

The three have written to their children each day and have sent books and notepads, although only a couple of their letters have made it through to them. On March 9, seven months after the hikers were held, they were allowed to phone their parents for the first time. "It was a tremendous relief to hear their voices at last and know that Shane, Sarah and Josh are keeping well and staying strong," the families said at the time. "They still don't have any details about their case but they are aware of some of what we and others are doing to speed their release. We believe the calls are a positive signal that their long detention may soon be over after these many months of anguish and uncertainty."

After several more months and more empty words promising progress, the mothers' hopes now rise more slowly. Sarah was allowed a second call on August 9, five days before her birthday. This may have been a tacit acknowledgement by her captors that detention was hitting Sarah the hardest. Shane and Josh share a cell, and have each other for company. Sarah is in solitary confinement, apart from 30 minutes twice a day when the three are allowed time together, usually outside in the courtyard.

She eats alone, exercises alone, writes songs and sings to herself. A few times, other women prisoners being escorted past Sarah's cell have said a few words: "Sarah, we know you are there; we love you; stay strong." Such a small thing has been very uplifting to her says Shourd. "… to know that the other women prisoners know her despite her isolation and feel a connection with her." Sarah has also had medical problems. Months ago, a gynaecological infection was reported and apparently left untreated. She also has a pre-cancerous growth on her cervix which needs medical attention and is struggling with anxiety and depression. Her mother has submitted a statement about Sarah's psychological condition to the Iranian officials from her therapist with her medical records but these have been ignored.

A Swiss diplomat, acting on behalf of the US in Iran, eventually established that the three hikers were being held at Evin prison. Since then the mothers have been imagining what it must be like for their children. In this they have been helped by two Iranian-American women who were held in the jail and who wrote books about their experience: Haleh Esfandiari, who wrote My Prison, and Roxana Saberi, a former Miss North Dakota, who wrote Between Two Worlds.

"Both Roxana and Haleh spoke in detail about their cells," say Sourd, "what they looked like, the size, the lack of windows or sunlight, the hard metal bed, the food, the medical care, so I was able to draw an image in my mind of Sarah's surroundings and picture her there… being held in solitary confinement is the thing I cannot stop thinking about; alone in her cell for 23 hours a day for a year. This is her nightmare and my nightmare too."

Saberi, who was held in the prison for 100 days, was introduced to the mothers by a mutual friend. She has been surprised by the length of time the hikers have been held. "I don't think any of us expected the three would be held so long," she says. "The hardest part for them is being robbed of freedom - freedom to see their loved ones, freedom to visit with their attorney… being cut off from the world, uncertain of the future. From what I understand they have not been physically abused, but I am sure they have been under severe psychological and mental pressures. Some human rights advocates have called this 'white torture' - it doesn't leave a mark on the body but can devastate the mind and conscience. It often combines prolonged solitary confinement, isolation, manipulation and threats."

Malcom Smart, the Middle East director for Amnesty International, echoes Saberi's concern: "Statements by senior Iranian leaders … have suggested that the three may be being detained in order to put pressure on the US government and to extract diplomatic concessions. If this were the case, then the continuing detention of these three individuals would amount to hostage-taking and be a very serious abuse of human rights.

"The detainees must be given immediate access to their lawyer, to renewed consular access and contact with their families, and to any medical attention that they need." In May, nine months after the hikers were taken, their mothers were granted Iranian visas and allowed to visit their children. By this time, the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had told the Iranian judiciary to "treat the case of the Americans with maximum leniency", although no charges had yet been brought, no trial planned and no release date mentioned.

The reunion took place in the Esteghel (Independence) hotel, in northern Tehran, watched initially by TV cameras and journalists. Renowned for being used as an interrogation centre, the mothers, veiled and carrying flowers for their children, were anxious that the rooms might be bugged. When Josh, Shane and Sarah were taken from their cells they had no idea where they were going and thought they might be being taken to court. It was only when they walked into the hotel room that they realised what was happening.

Over the next two days they were allowed to spend 10 hours with their mothers. They were never alone and always careful not to say anything that might compromise their time together - but they could speak and touch. Having been deprived of news, the hikers were amazed when told that the US president, Barack Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights activist. Desmond Tutu, and the former US president Bill Clinton had all spoken out on their behalf.

At one point, Shane, answering questions from reporters, began to say that the three had not crossed into Iran, but cut himself short. His partial statement is in line with the finding of an investigation into their arrest by The Nation. According to witnesses living near the border, the hikers were on Iraqi Kurdistan soil when Iranian national guardsmen began waving to them to come over. When the hikers didn't obey, a warning shot was fired. The national guardsmen then crossed the border and illegally apprehended Shane, Sarah and Josh, the witnesses said.

The Nation's findings, and an investigation by Outside magazine, have caused the families to adjust their language in statements from implying the hikers had crossed the border accidentally, to suggesting, perhaps, they didn't cross of their own free will. During the first day of the visit, Sarah managed to get some time alone in the bathroom with her mother and showed her a lump in her breast. She had still received no medical attention and neither had Shane, who was suffering from a stomach ailment.

There was something else Sarah wanted to share with her mother. It was a wedding ring Shane had given her in January when he proposed. She had accepted. It was, of course, homemade - woven together from threads from his towel. Shane had asked her to marry him in the prison yard during their 30 minutes together. Josh had stayed back to give them some privacy. In the hotel room with their mothers, Shane and Sarah got down on their knees, held their mothers' hands, and asked for their blessing, which was happily given. Sarah showed off her ring as though it were made of precious metal. Josh, whom Shane says is like a brother, will be the best man.

The next day, after four hours, the visit was abruptly brought to an end. There was no mention of release, no promise of a trial, no suggestion that the mothers and their children would see each other again soon. The hikers were led to the lift and the visit was over." As the lift doors were closing, Shane said: "Mom, I love you and I will be OK". His mother replied, "We won't quit until you are home, I love you Shane, be strong".

Sarah's mother says: "I just wanted to scream and run with her somewhere, get her out of there. It is horrifying for me to think of those men who, with cruelty and hardness, sat there in that room and watched us cry and hug our children and to know that those are the same men who control every second of their life in that prison." Last year the mothers released a statement a month after their children were seized. It ended: "To the people of Iran, our families would like to extend peace and blessings to you in this holy month of Ramadan."

More than a year later, it is Ramadan again, a perfect time to make a humanitarian gesture. As Josh's mother says: "Enough is enough. Josh, Shane and Sarah need to come home." To sign the petition for their release and find out more about the hikers, visit freethehikers.org and freeourfriends.eu

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