Breaking free

Pub date October 4, 2011
WriterRebecca Bowe

An ordeal that began with a hiking trip on July 31, 2009 in Northern Iraq came to a close Sept. 21 when Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal were released from Tehran’s Evin Prison. They’d languished in an 8-by-13-foot cell for 781 days while their friends and supporters waged a creative, behind-the-scenes campaign to free them.

Bauer and Fattal were ferried out in a convoy with Swiss and Omani officials and flown to Oman, where news cameras captured their joyful reunion with loved ones. Waiting on the tarmac with their family members was Sarah Shourd, Bauer’s fiancée, who’d been arrested with them and was released last September after spending 410 days in solitary confinement. It was the first time since their arrest that “the hikers” — as the trio came to be labeled in the campaign calling for their release — were together outside prison walls, free at last.

Watching their reunion from Seattle, their friend Shon Meckfessel — who went to Northern Iraq with them but hadn’t felt up to hiking that day — was overjoyed. “It’s like I’ve collapsed from relief,” he told us by phone. “I just feel like I’ve been asphyxiated for the last two years, and suddenly I remember what air smells like.”

In the Bay Area, friends who’d pulled together to work toward their release breathed a huge, collective sigh of relief. “It was just a crazy, amazing adrenaline rush of happiness,” said Jennifer Miller, who befriended Shourd years earlier while doing human rights work focused on violence against women in Juarez.

Bauer and Fattal had stood trial only weeks earlier in an Iranian court, on charges of espionage and illegally crossing an unmarked border between Iraq and Iran. They were found guilty and sentenced to eight years each in prison. Their release coincided with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to the United States for the United Nations General Assembly conference.

As Bauer, Shourd, and Fattal remained isolated at the mercy of guards they could barely communicate with, their family and supporters kept up a steady drumbeat calling for their release. They recruited actors, intellectuals, and foreign diplomats to urge the Iranian government — which has not had diplomatic ties with the U.S. Since 1979 — to let the Americans go. Once Bauer and Fattal were free and wandering around New York City, they’d morphed into minor celebrities — strangers approached them in the streets to wish them well.

In the end, nobody can say just what persuaded the Iranian government to release Bauer and Fattal. “Sarah was talking with diplomats in all kinds of countries. The thing is, none of us really knows what the calculus was,” said Liam O’Donoghue, a friend who helped out with the campaign.

The campaign was multi-faceted, with friends and family coordinating parallel efforts from various locales. While Bauer and Fattal’s group of friends in the Bay Area are quick to note that their work reflected just one slice of the overall push for the young men’s freedom, the grassroots organizing effort they created clearly had some effect in the end.

“If Shane, Sarah, and Josh were just three random people who didn’t have this group of friends who were so proficient at organizing, I think they would have still been in jail,” O’Donoghue mused.

Shortly after Bauer and Fattal were freed, Iran’s foreign ministry issued a statement acknowledging the involvement of the Sultan of Oman, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, and — more surprisingly, given his adversarial relationship with the U.S. — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who enjoys a close relationship with Ahmadinejad.

Once reports surfaced emphasizing Chavez’s involvement, the news broke that actor Sean Penn had played a role, too — by flying to Venezuela to encourage Chavez to approach Ahmadinejad about the case.

Yet the stage had already been set by friends of the hiking trio, a small crew of passionate social justice activists based in San Francisco and Oakland. They possessed skills as organizers, but this time the goal was more personal — they wanted nothing more than for their friends to be free.



Based on the 17 alarmed messages on his voicemail, David Martinez knew something terrible had happened involving Bauer and Shourd. An independent filmmaker, Martinez was close to both and had collaborated with Bauer in 2007 to produce a film about Darfur.

Soon after learning that they were being detained in Iran, he found himself swept into a whirlwind, ad-hoc grassroots organizing effort as friends and family of the hikers contacted one another, fired off rapid emails, and organized conference calls to try and determine how to respond.

“We created this working group, this conference group — we wanted everybody’s expertise,” explained attorney Ben Rosenfeld, who has known Shourd for more than a decade and offered free legal representation to Shourd’s mother. “We set out to build a brain trust, essentially, and we did that very, very quickly.”

Shourd and Bauer had been living in Damascus, Syria, at a Palestinian camp when they decided to take a short trip to Iraqi Kurdistan. Shourd was teaching English to Iraqi refugees, and Bauer — a photojournalist — was writing articles about the Middle East. Fattal, an environmental educator, was visiting them. They journeyed along with Meckfessel to Kurdistan, a forested region of Iraq known as a safe destination for U.S. citizens. But once they arrived, Meckfessel felt groggy, so he opted to stay behind while the other three went off in search of a waterfall.

“I was on a bus to meet them and got a call from Shane that they were being arrested by Iranian authorities,” Meckfessel told the Guardian. After notifying their families, he flew to Istanbul to stay with a friend.

Back in the Bay Area, word of the hikers’ plight was starting to make news. “I had producers from morning shows like Good Morning America ringing my doorbell from the beginning,” Rosenfeld said.

Martinez was on a conference call with the core group of organizers when Meckfessel contacted him via Skype from Istanbul — and by that point, the national media was hungry for a statement from the elusive fourth hiker. So the group worked with Meckfessel to craft a statement for the press.

The first challenge they faced was this: Should they emphasize that Bauer, Shourd, and Fattal were humanitarian activists, or should they downplay their political leanings by casting them as adventuresome Americans with a love of the outdoors? Both portrayals were true, but the most important audience, as Rosenfeld pointed out, was ultimately their captors.

Meckfessel said he thought highlighting their politics would help their case. “The first minute after I got the phone call [from Bauer] … I thought that basically our involvement in the region as journalists, as academics, and as educators, and our long public record speaking out for human rights and as critics of US foreign policy in the area … would get them out,” he said.

Meckfessel later created a website,, to emphasize the humanitarian and journalistic work that the three were engaged in. In the summer of 2010, he maxed out two credit cards to go on a 30-city European tour to drum up support overseas.

Despite the group’s initial contact with the Committee to Protect Journalists as well as Bauer’s editors at The Nation and Mother Jones, some were opposed to emphasizing the journalism aspect. “Think back to July 2009 in Iran,” Martinez said, referencing the popular uprising known as the Green Revolution that had sent shockwaves through Iran just months earlier. “Our friends were and are journalists involved in social movements and people’s movements. I’m pretty sure if you did a Google search with ‘Iran, July, 2009, activists,’ you’d come up with something like torture, prison. That is why we thought … let’s just say they’re hikers.”

So they came to be known as “the hikers,” and a website was created to go along with the campaign, called Free the Hikers.

“We wanted to make sure we weren’t divulging details about them that they weren’t divulging to their interrogators,” Rosenfeld said. “We wanted to be careful not to piss off the U.S. or the State Department. And, if we seemed too orchestrated, it might feed into Iran’s paranoid theories that they were spies. So we had to try to solve for all of these variables at the same time.”

It began to dawn on them that they were contending not only with the soured relationship between the U.S. and Iran, but an internal power struggle within Iran that had intensified in the wake of mass internal dissent. “The government that grabbed Shane, Josh, and Sarah was at war with its own people,” Martinez reflected. “They were prisoners of the historical moment.”

Nor was the trio the first in their circle of friends to stumble into a horrendous situation overseas. Tristan Anderson, of Berkeley, was attending a nonviolent protest of the Israeli occupation in a Palestinian village at the beginning of 2009 when he was hit by a high-velocity teargas projectile fired by Israeli Defense Forces, and sustained serious brain injuries.

“Tristan’s like a minor celebrity in Iran,” Meckfessel noted. “He’s known not only for initially getting shot … but Tristan’s whole case got a lot of sympathetic media in Iran.” When his three friends were captured, “the first thought I had was, we have proof that we’re all friends with Tristan,” he said.

On Feb. 10, 2010, Anderson’s parents, Nancy and Mike Anderson, sent a letter to Ahmadinejad. “It pains us greatly, on top of the tragedy we have already suffered, to see Tristan’s close friends made to bear the burden of grievances between nations,” they wrote.



The idea to approach the Venezuelan government started when Raymor Ryan, an Irish author who lives in Chiapas, phoned Martinez. “He said, ‘The only thing that’s going to really affect them is state power — this is a game of diplomacy,'” Martinez recounted. He suggested Venezuela — a country that is not only on friendly terms with Iran, but has connections with social movements. Martinez liked the idea, but first he ran it by another friend, famed academic Immanuel Wallerstein.

In an email, Wallerstein summarized for the Guardian the advice he gave. “The Iranians are using this as part of their struggles with the United States,” he wrote. “The least likely way to obtain their release is to allow U.S.-Iranian relations to be the issue, or to allow the virtues of the Iranian regime to be the issue. I suggested that they try to work with various left-of-center governments in Latin America, which have friendly relations with Iran, and see if they will intervene with the Iranian government. I did not single out Venezuela. After that, I was out of the picture.”

In October of 2009, Rosenfeld reached out to an attorney he knew through the National Lawyers Guild, Eva Golinger, who’s authored seven books, lives in Caracas, and occasionally serves as an adviser to Chavez. She agreed to help.

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.”



When the day of their release finally came, Golinger watched in Caracas as television broadcasts showed Bauer and Fattal bounding down the steps of the plane and leaping into the arms of their loved ones. She sent a text to Maduro, the Venezuelan foreign minister, who was in New York for the UN General Assembly. “I asked … were we involved?” Minutes later, she received a text in response. “He said, fundamentally, yes.” The Iranian foreign minister had told him that the release went through because of Chavez’s request.

Days later, in New York, the hikers visited the Venezuelan consulate. And on the same trip, their first time back on U.S. soil, Bauer and Fattal held a press conference.

“The only explanation for our prolonged detention is the 32 years of mutual hostility between America and Iran,” Bauer said. “The irony is that Sarah, Josh, and I oppose U.S. policies towards Iran which perpetuate this hostility. We were convicted of espionage because we are American. It is that simple.”

He went on: “In prison, every time we complained about our conditions, the guards would immediately remind us of comparable conditions at Guantanamo Bay. They would remind us of CIA prisons in other parts of the world, and the conditions that Iranians and others experience in prisons in the U.S. We do not believe that such human rights violations on the part of our government justify what has been done to us, not for a moment. However, we do believe that these actions on the part of the U.S provide an excuse for other governments, including the governments of Iran, to act in kind.”