The families and friends of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, two young American hikers imprisoned by Iran since July 2009, are pleading for their release in time for the winter holidays.
A third young American, Sarah Shourd, was freed in September on compassionate grounds after nearly 14 months in solitary confinement in Tehran's Evin Prison. Shortly before that, Shourd said, all three were charged with espionage and illegal entry at a hearing in the prison, the one time they were allowed to meet their lawyer.
In the weeks since her release, Shourd, 32, has spent her days writing and speaking to keep attention focused on the plight of Bauer and Fattal, both 28. She recently made a music video, with a song that she wrote while in prison, called "Piece of Time." Shourd became engaged to Shane Bauer during one of their 40-minute daily visits in the prison courtyard, and they have asked Josh Fattal to be the best man at their wedding.
"I am hoping and praying and pleading with Iranian religious leaders and political authorities for a compassionate release on humanitarian grounds," Shourd said in an interview. "Shane and Josh don't deserve to be in prison one day longer than I was, and I hope and pray that they will be shown the same compassion."
Their ordeal began on July 31, 2009. Shourd was teaching at a school in Damascus, where Shane Bauer was a freelance photojournalist. Their friend Josh Fattal, also a teacher, visited them when Shourd had a week off. As shown in a short documentary, "Free the Hikers," by filmmaker Jeff Kaufman, the three went on vacation to a scenic part of Iraqi Kurdistan, in northern Iraq. There they visited the Ahmed Awa waterfalls, a popular tourist attraction.
They camped out near the falls and the next morning, Shourd said, went hiking along one of the nearby trails, never realizing that each step took them closer to the border with Iran. After a couple of hours, they saw a soldier standing some distance away, who ordered them to come closer - to step off the path. Only when he began speaking to them in Farsi, did they realize he was an Iranian soldier.
As Shourd says in Kaufman's documentary, "He said 'Iran' and pointed to the ground where we were standing, and then he pointed to the trail that we had been on and he said, 'Iraq.' So, according to that soldier, we did not enter Iran until he gestured for us to come off the trail, into Iran."
Shourd said the three are peace activists dedicated to cultural exchange with the Middle East, and would never be spies. She said their time as prisoners has only strengthened those beliefs. "I know that when Shane and Josh are free, we're all going to help each other to heal from this experience and God willing, we'll be able to come out of it with something positive to offer back to the world," she said, "because the last thing Shane and Josh and I want is for the legacy of our tragedy to be negative."
In the nearly 17 months since the three were taken by the Iranian soldiers, their families have received phone calls just twice. In May, the mothers of all three were allowed to visit. They had hoped to take their children home with them, but were sent back alone after two days.
Shourd and her mother met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in September within days of her release when he visited New York for the United Nations General Assembly. She said he promised to seek "maximum" compassion and leniency for Bauer and Fattal, who are to be tried in February.
Shourd has called in recent days for normalizing U.S.-Iran relations, saying that it is the only path away from war. "It's what's best for Americans," she said, "It's what's best for Iranians."And, she added, if relations warmed, perhaps she could someday get to know Iran outside its prison walls. "I could see the other side of Iran, which is the majority, of beautiful, kind people that love God and want to live in peace," she said.
Such hopes may seem slim this winter, following the recent assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist, which Iran blamed on the west, and Iran's announcement that it is now able to produce yellowcake uranium. But for Sarah Shourd and other friends and family of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, there is no other option.