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Iran hikers, in U.S., say they heard screams of other prisoners

September 25, 2011 |  2:34 pm

Fattal

Two Americans who were convicted of spying in Iran and spent more than two years in prison after what they said was an innocent hike in northern Iraq described hearing the screams of other prisoners, hunger strikes to demand better conditions, and living in "a world of lies and false hope" in their first public statements after returning to the United States.

The two –- Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, both 29 -- appeared at a Manhattan hotel a few hours after landing at John F. Kennedy Airport, ending a diplomatic ordeal that began with their arrests in July 2009.

Appearing with them were relatives as well as Sarah Shourd, who was arrested at the same time and released in September 2010 in what Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, called a humanitarian gesture.

Noticeably absent in the words of thanks uttered by the hikers and their families was gratitude toward Ahmadinejad, even though Iran’s foreign ministry called their release from Tehran's Evin Prison a gesture of Islamic mercy. The men had been sentenced to eight years in prison.

"Releasing us is a good gesture, and no positive step should go unnoticed. We applaud the Iranian authorities for finally making the right decision regarding our case," said Fattal. "But we want to be clear that they do not deserve undue credit for ending what they had no right and no justification to start in the first place."

The three Americans were hostages because "Iran has always tied our case to its political disputes with the U.S.," Fattal said.

Bauer said that to this day he doesn’t know whether the three really crossed the border during what he called "our fateful hiking trip" in July 2009, when they were picked up by Iranian officials after going hiking in northern Iraq's Kurdistan region, near the Iranian border. Bauer said one of the ironies of their imprisonment was that the three had long opposed U.S policies toward Iran.

He did not go into details, but the United States for years has accused Iran of seeking to build nuclear weapons, and of supplying weapons used by Shiite militias against U.S. and other forces in Iraq. Iran denies the allegations.

But their views about the U.S. stance toward Iran did not soften their feelings toward Iran for holding them as prisoners.

To those who ask if they can forgive Iran, Bauer said: "How can we forgive the Iranian government when it continues to imprison so many other innocent people and prisoners of conscience?"

Fattal said the two were held in isolation for most of their time in prison and allowed just 15 minutes total of phone calls with their families. "We had to go on hunger strike repeatedly just to receive letters from our loved ones," he said in his statement. "Many times, too many times, we heard the screams of other prisoners being beaten."

The releases of Shourd last year and Bauer and Fattal this year were each timed to coincide with the respective annual meeting of the United Nations’ General Assembly and Ahmadinejad’s visits to New York for those sessions. Last year, Shourd made a point of mentioning Ahmadinejad by name as she thanked various officials for her freedom. At that time, relatives of Fattal and Bauer went to New York in hopes of personally appealing to Ahmadinejad to free the men.

This year, in an apparent attempt to burnish his image, Ahmadinejad announced shortly before he flew to New York early last week that Fattal and Bauer would be freed.

That plan was nixed at the last minute by Iranian judges. In what was seen as a slap-down of Ahmadinejad, who has been at odds with the country’s judiciary, they said the president had no unilateral right to free prisoners.

The men finally went free last Wednesday after their defense attorney secured judicial approval for bail set at $500,000 each. Oman, a Persian Gulf ally of the United States, posted the bail.

Fattal said the two learned of their imminent release Wednesday after their daily brief exercise break in an open-air room of the prison. "On any other day we would have been blindfolded and led down the hallway to our 8-foot-by-13-foot cell," he said. "But on that day the guards took us downstairs. They fingerprinted us and gave us street clothes. They did not tell us where we were going."

Instead, he said, they were taken to another part of the prison, where an Oman official said, "Let’s go home."

Since her release last year, Shourd, who is Bauer's fiancee, has lived in Oakland, Calif. Bauer, a freelance journalist, grew up in Onamia, Minn., and Fattal, an environmental activist, is from Elkins Park, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb. The three knew each other as students at UC Berkeley and said they were on a holiday in northern Iraq’s relatively peaceful Kurdistan region when they went on their hike in the hills.

Bauer proposed marriage to Shourd while they were in jail.

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-- Tina Susman in New York

Photo: Josh Fattal, left, and Shane Bauer, the two U.S. hikers released from detention in Iran, deliver a statement at a news conference in New York.  Credit: Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters

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