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Muhammad Ali Joins Families Urging Release of Jailed US Hikers in Iran

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali during a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, May 24, 2011

American boxing legend Muhammad Ali and other prominent members of the U.S. Muslim community are urging Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to release two American hikers who are jailed in Iran on spying charges.

Muhammad Ali, a three-time World Heavyweight Champion, is one of America’s most well-known Muslims. On Tuesday, he joined the families of Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer to call for their release from an Iranian prison.

The 69-year-old Ali, who is frail and battling Parkinson's disease, sat in a chair next to the podium and did not speak. His wife Lonnie said the two jailed Americans are very much like her husband when he was young.

“Because they too are citizens of the world, if they will look at them as the world looked at Muhammad when he was a young man, in the same fashion, wanting to experience the world and experience people," said Lonnie Ali.

Fattal and Bauer, who are 28-years-old, were arrested in July 2009 while hiking in the mountains along the Iran-Iraq border.

A third American, 32-year-old Sarah Shourd, was released on $500,000 bail last September and allowed to return to the United States.

The three are charged with spying and illegally crossing the Iranian border. The hikers deny the charges, saying that if they crossed the unmarked border, it was by accident.

Shourd, who is Bauer’s fiancée, appealed for the men’s release.

“We are here to pray that Iran will hear this appeal and at last show the compassion to Shane and Josh that was demonstrated through my release and, of course, to ask people around the world not to forget these two innocent men," said Sarah Shourd.

The detained hikers recently were allowed to call home for only the third time since their arrest.

They told family members that Iranian authorities are not allowing them access to letters from home.

“We heard recently in the phone calls that Josh and Shane have been on a hunger strike for 17 consecutive days to receive letters," said Alex Fattal, Josh's brother. "That breaks our hearts. We want them home.”

The resumption of the trial of the hikers was delayed earlier this month when authorities did not transfer the two men from prison to the courtroom.

U.S. Muslin leaders joined the hikers' families to urge Iran to release Bauer and Fattal.

The families say they hope that with the help of an iconic boxer in their corner, this latest round in the fight to bring the men home will be successful.